In the near future (next few decades) a giant spaceship is detected as it decelerates on its way into the solar system. It heads for Earth orbit, but a few weeks before reaching Earth, it veers away and ends up in orbit around the sun not far from Earth, about 10 times the Earth-Moon distance.

The ship doesn't respond in any way to attempted communications. NASA re-purposes a satellite that was scheduled to launch for Mars and approaches the ship. To everyone's surprise, the ship opens a large hangar door and sends some radio signals to the satellite. After some time and repeated signals, the door closes again. Next an international team goes and boards the ship.

It turns out to be a generation ship but evidently failed, as it's full of dead human-size insectoids and only a few cryogenically frozen specimens, most also dead. The ship seems to be otherwise intact and is run by some kind of computer. Unfortunately, the computer is not compatible in anyway with Macs or any other human-made computers. With some advanced cameras, the displays can be converted to human vision and they appear to show that Earth has been rejected as a colony world and the next destination is an Earth-like planet most likely some 50 light-years away. There's also a countdown of uncertain length, but likely to be 3-4 months because that will be when the trajectory towards the next star is optimal.

Some humans decide they want to grab this once in a lifetime chance to hitch a ride on this ship, despite the risk of meeting the same fate as the original crew.

The technical part

The aliens' basic physiology is compatible with Earth-life (the very reason they headed for Earth) and the atmosphere on the ship is readily breathable by humans. The water dispensed in the ship has way too high mineral content, but nothing that would destroy human filters and some specific taps supply demineralised water.

However, the plants in the hydroponic farms are all toxic to humans and while the light seems good, the water is full of bacteria that kill any other plants. They need to be flushed and run manually somehow. The waste-recycling method is unknown (it can be adapted to make things more workable).

The ship itself is designed in a very distributed and resilient way. Attempts to remove subsystems and attach human systems to their power supply points work once it's figured out the ship supplies DC electricity at the roughly the voltage indicated by the system upon connection. Unfortunately, no control connection seems to work, nor does the ship's computer interact with the systems in any way.

The computer running the ship seems to have been programmed in a very permissive way. It doesn't take any hostile action and doesn't override or reverse non-damaging changes to the ship. It appears to recognize humans as living and treats them as if they were regular occupants, activating lights, heating and other functions on demand. It even responds to certain sounds, but the reply is always the same, most likely "I don't understand your request, try again".

However, it doesn't recognize anyone or anything as having the authority to access or change the reactor and drive section nor the navigational systems. The same goes for the shuttles and landing craft in the hangars. The ship is going to depart and short of destroying it nothing will delay that.

Humanity has one huge leg up: They have established a small base on Mars and were just preparing a serious colony mission consisting of 2 passenger ships holding 50 people each and several cargo ships to deliver machinery and supplies enough to set up a colony for those 100 people. The alien ship is much closer, so multiple trips per ship are possible.

The sponsoring governments are loathe to postpone the Mars effort, but if the chances for surviving on the alien generation ship are good enough, they are willing to divert some or all the Mars colony ships.

What resources do they need to take to the ship and what will it take to get them there?

In response to comments and answers:

The time limit is flexible in the service of storytelling. I obviously chose it too short, but it should not allow for complete preparation and a 99% certainty of survival. That said, for all intents and purposes a single person on board with enough supplies could live out their life on the ship, it seems to be that safe. But the new crew is going to have to get aboard with some stuff that they have to figure out on the way if they want to make it work in the long run.

A lot of equipment is ready to go, thanks to the Mars mission. That probably includes a whole set of Hydroponic-ready plants that cover nutritional needs (though only tested up to few years with adults). Of course, the equipment was meant for only 100 people when at least ten times that will go on the alien ship.

Of the cryogenic pods, only a few show status lights that appear to indicate all is well. The insectoids can't be revived yet (an attempt will result in the alien's death) and are not playing an active role in the story, but their presence obviously does. (Thanks liljoshu!) All the other insectoids were frozen where they died when the ship lowered the temperature to somewhat below zero degrees celcius. It's unclear what they died from, but there is no sign of disease or violence. There is also no evidence of a queen or other special types or aliens. The exact cause remains unknown during my story, though the leading theory becomes that they were hit by an intense radiation burst.

Finally, one of the landing ships is pulled from the hangar to a safe distance and experimented on to try to disable the computer or drive system. It does not end well, so the decision is made to not tamper with the much bigger versions on the generation ship.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Because the story is more interesting to me when the protagonists have to choose whether or not to risk their lives in a ship they can't control or fully understand yet. But my question here is exactly to help me find out a workable but challenging situation. In the end it could be more time, just never really enough :-) $\endgroup$
    – Cyrus
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 18:04
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Actually it's been rejected because it's already occupied by intelligent beings, something the ship didn't determine until close to the solar system. But the people on Earth don't know that yet, so I didn't want to put it in the question. $\endgroup$
    – Cyrus
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps instead of four months arbitrary time span it could be waiting on a manual 'Accept that we move on to the next planet' button to be pressed $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ Have you read the Rama sequels ? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Cyrus By dead and frozen do you mean some dead and some in cryogenics, or do you mean the whole population is both dead and exposed to vacuum and thus frozen. You really need to describe a bit more about the failed crew since it greatly affects the mortality and risk of other actions. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 19:23

8 Answers 8


Food, water, air, shelter, and a few other environmental criteria are all humans -need- to survive. To this end, the ship is obviously providing these.

You mention the frozen insectoids come in both dead and still-frozen varieties. The biggest challenge then isn't the physical needs then, but the insectoids.

The dumb response would be kill the living-yet-frozen ones and take over the ship. The ship, not killing humans on entrance, but respecting visiting living things, implies that the insectoids hold life in high regard (my guess is that's probably why they avoided Earth). They're also more technologically advanced than humans. It's dumb because follow up probes will trigger that humanity is an aggressive killing species, at which point we've started war with a technologically superior species that can obviously reach our world but we don't know where they came from if we hurt the frozen occupants.

However, it IS a golden opportunity. They've obviously lost crew and may not have compliment to survive on destination. Effort should be taken to identity the roles of the dead crew, and provide replacements. Also, since you know how their vision is different, rig up a display to show the videos of approach, discovery, and finding they're already dead and refactored show it shows in the displays the insectoids understand - so they know humanity's story there when they unfroze them.

As a result, humanity will likely come out with an interstellar ally, and all the tech we didn't understand may end up being shared. Make it obvious that they're doing the best they can to care for the still-frozen crew members, and try to do repairs to the ship.

Do NOT flush the hydroponics system. Replacing their food supply with your own will just cause strife. Bring in your own plants and hydroponics and place in the same region of the ship. We already have the tech for this. Even if toxic, plants from the hydroponics could still be pruned to keep them reasonable, and the biomass pruned off can be incenerated to carbon and other elements and used as fertilizer for our own hydroponics - a symbiotic relationship from the start. At which point it should be taken as a sign of "We're joining you in exploring the stars, we're of like mind."

Since they obviously respect life, when the insectoids wake up, they'll see a new alien species who cared for them and joined them (without knowing that we're technologically behind them in some ways), and helped them set up colony on a new world (unthawing would take a bit), meaning you have the first mutli-species cosmopolitan colony that humanity is part of.

If this is THEIR first colony ship, it means humanity and them have a long future together as partners. (Likely due to the unintentional fatalities).

If it's not their first colony ship (unlikely but possible), humanity has avoided ticking off a much larger force while still making benefit.

If humanity -doesn't- try to join for the ride though, there's someone else in the steller neighborhood grabbing all the good habitable planets.

From a tactical perspective, it makes best sense to try to ally, join, and cooperate.

And from survivability standpoint, if we were already planning colony ships to our own system, we should have an easy time "colonizing" a hospitable environment on a larger interstellar colony ship than we would the inhospitable planet we were aiming for for a shorter duration. We might load on a lot of supplies into storage space, but it's a fairly reasonable route.

  • $\begingroup$ You would be better delaying the ship somehow until you can at least talk to the computer, hopefully revive a few of the insectoids since you don't know what killed the others you may be dooming all of them otherwise. They might be perfectly willing to make space for a few of the species that prevented their extinction/failure. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ My initial idea was that all the frozen insectoids would turn out to be dead as well, but reading your answer makes me think they will be much more interesting if a number are alive but unable to be woken up (for now at least). These are some serious moral and strategic considerations :-) $\endgroup$
    – Cyrus
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ Keep in mind the more you alter the ship without their input the greater the risk you will be dooming them. "Oh, we didn't realize you would need all of that..." is kind of a sucky way to doom them too. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ Your biggest worry is that ships for a mars colony will be made with communications with home and future supplies in mind so you may want to extend the time limit to a few years so they can send supplies for this mission and not have to rely on the mars material. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 20:42

I see several problems that make this unlikely.

  1. The ship already killed everyone on board once already.
  2. You need about 50,000 people to have a good genetic pool. Cryogenic storage of genetic material can alleviate some of that.
  3. The mineral filters need to be changed regularly, you would need enough to last the trip or have the ability to make them. It may be best to look at the water supply itself to de-mineralize the water. Or replace the water.
  4. New plants (and new dirt) for everyone. Is there room for animal life? If not, be very careful with the plants and have redundant plant types for every dietary need. You don't want, for instance, a fungus to mutate and take out your only sources of dietary phosphorous.

However, if you can overcome those issues (and analyze the ship to get the info you have) in 4 months, it should work.

On Rendezvous with Rama (by Arthur C. Clarke), the ship was swinging through our system using the Sun as a gravity assist. That gave us our short window to check it out.

How is the ship accelerating and decelerating? I'd be tempted to blow the command section just so I can disassemble the engines to see how they work.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ You have about 0% probabilites to survive in a generation ship designed for a completely alien species, by a far more advanced civilization that ours, which miserably failed at its mission. And I say 0% because negative probabilities does not exist. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 7:50

I tend to be pessimistic. There are a few points speaking against any survival chance...

  • The ship was built by a technologically advanced species
  • The ship was built exactly to support THAT species
  • The species building the ship had years, perhaps decades to prepare for this mission
  • The ship is huge, so it should have had redundant supplies
  • The ship probably contained specialist for everything (biologists, doctors, etc.) that may have been needed to keep members of that species alive
  • Despite all of that, the ship FAILED to do exactly that

So, what are the chances that another species will survive exactly the same task, given that...

  • This species does not understand the technology at all
  • This species can only use parts of the ecosystem without danger
  • This species has only a very limited amount of time to gather supplies and people

So, given these ideas, chances are slim. The best chances I see would be one of these:

  • Humans are somehow inherently better than the aliens to survive such a journey. Or, the other way round, somehow the aliens were unsuited for such a travel, perhaps some flaw that was only expressed itself in deep space.
  • Whatever killed the aliens was a rare event, something that can happen but doesn't have to happen, so humans could be lucky and don't fall into the same trap. Perhaps the mentioned radiation burst can happen accidentally, but it also might not during such a journey. In other words, the aliens simply had a streak of very bad luck.

A 4 month time frame is not enough time to analyse, design, produce, and ship the necessary modules to adapt the generation ship to support human life. The existing Mars missions are probably designed with regularly scheduled resupplies, and extensive monitoring from an Earth based mission control in mind. They wouldn't be suited for repurposing for supporting a populations for multiple generations.

To put things in perspective it took 8 years to launch the Mars Science Laboratory after the initial request for proposals.


I would fully agree with liljoshu, just a few more thoughts:

1) But what if no insect with authority to use any landing craft is still alive? I mean the ship parks itself on the orbit, and waits for someone with authority to give final order? From what you describe humans can not be certain, that any insectoid can be defrost intact. So possibly no landing. (is there enough place to take your own landing craft?)

2) If the ship was designed to go to Earth and changed their mind at the end, they wouldn't have much fuel. (simple logic: mass is expensive in space travel) Not big deal for frozen insects, but it may matter for generations of humans if the travel can take really long.

3) The most important thing that this mission can achieve is NOT colonizing some distant planet, but reverse engineer alien technology without making humans galactic pirates and outlaws. Assuming that there is a team that slowly understands part of alien tech that's the priority. So install Wi-Fi uhmm... satellite dish to communicate with Earth. Put there a team of young engineers, scientists, archaeologists, computer geeks, etc. People NOT specially suitable for any colonization. Their job is to learn this tech, send data back to Earth. Just keep reasonable sex ratio and frozen gametes, if they are really successful maybe their grand kids would colonize something.

4) Regardless of anything while installing human habitat better take a few non critical supplies from the ship. Yes, even an alien hair drier would be a huge tech gain. ;)

5) A few generations of humans would have real problem of lack of meds. Not sure how it's produced at that level.

6) It's a perfect start of a horror story - ship arrives at wrong planet, most of crew dead and the ship infested by some mammals...

7) Those humans at least killed one alien (while defrosting), destroyed one landing ship and presumably did much more damage. I would send them unarmed and select only volunteers who would swear that they would show no resistance if aliens would become aggressive or just panic.


Trying to Wake up the few surviving Insectoids in cyrostasis would be the best option because they may be willing/able to stop the ship from moving on to the next potential colony automatically, giving us all time to do all the First Contact stuff that both sides will most certainly want to get done. Once that is out of the way, and later cooperate to colonize that other new world that the ship was going to redirect itself to.

And considering the ship just opened the door for them, and I doubt the ship's automated systems are dumb enough to think the approaching Earth vessel was another alien ship, this indicates a desire to communicate with and even trust alien life, hell if the alien ship has an onboard AI, that AI would likely be trying to figure out communications with humans, and vary well could have had that analysis figured out before arrival due to listening to Earth's radio signals during its approach, likely being the reason it concluded it was safe to let humanity come aboard.

I find this video on First Contact a vary interesting view on the long process of, and how that process would usually be completed long before the two species ever directly meet each other in a setting with no FTL:



  1. Why would you use a closed software ecosystem for external communication? (macs ;))
  2. Possible, yes. Probable, no. As Assimov asserted, the liklihood of an intelligent species existing within our species lifetime is so remote as to be implausible. These aliens may have been dead for millennia, and the ship has preserved the bodies. Cryostatis would be possible if the aliens share a few characteristics with our grasshoppers (anti-freeze in the blood and different cell structure from humans)

Humans would have to import and use their own technology on the ship for all of their own needs, similar to Gateway (F. Pohl)

  • $\begingroup$ Was ID4 so long ago that kids don't remember it??? :( $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 1:54
  • $\begingroup$ ID4 was rubbish as far as SF goes. Give me a non-WillSmith, non-TomCruise storyline any day. particularly with Nathan Fillion ;) $\endgroup$
    – Slipoch
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 7:03
  • $\begingroup$ Be that as it may, it's the reason for the Mac reference. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 13:07
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah sorry forgot to mention I got the reference. My bad. Got caught up in the hollywood of it all. it's like watching the original Girl with the dragon tattoo that has actual code vs the david finch version with pretty images. $\endgroup$
    – Slipoch
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 11:41

I do not know exactly what kind of story you want to build, but as others said, the chance of success is so small that it cannot seriously be taken into account. If you want a more credible story I would suggest that you modify it to something like:

  1. The ship had a critical failure somewhere in the solar system. A vast majority of the on board population was lost to this.
  2. The minimum crew is awaken by the ship, they initiate contact with humanity as they need help (manpower and resources). They are generally peaceful but the ship is capable of significant defense. This because if they are not peaceful we are easy pray and if they cant defend at all then they are easy pray and on both cases no standoff for intrigue can be made.
  3. You can have a plot conflict between humans who want to help them and cooperate and humans who just want to capture the ship, kill them and take the technology. Sub-plot intrigues can be made with the timing of discovering certain elements, like how many are left, how good the defense is, how opened they are to communication etc.
  4. Evolve the story into something where the ship is rebuild, some sort of technological transfer is made, humans join them, maybe in an extended and rebuilt ship that would properly sustain both populations.
  5. you can have a sequel with the voyage to the other world and stuff like that.

A ship that would not have a very important component with a lot of redundancy that would awake crew to save it is not plausible. It is just bad planning. Of course you could have automatic ships, but then you would not scout the possible systems with colony ships, you would have drone ships that report info back and the first contact would be with something like that and not a colony ship.

A story where humans manage to do in a limited time something that the creators of that ship could not do is not believable if the intended audience is over 10-15 years old and is interested in tech.


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