In my story, a team of scientists are sent to an alien world similar to Earth to conduct general research on its environment, ecosystem (that is: its animal- and plant-life), and weather.
It is the first visit to that world.

My question is this: what kind of scientists would be sent on such an expedition to an alien world?

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    $\begingroup$ Yes. It is there first visit. $\endgroup$
    – user43914
    Nov 8, 2017 at 4:21
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    $\begingroup$ As always the captain, tactical officer and several other high-ranking, indispensable officers as well as some nameless crew members so that they can be killed in accidents or by monsters. Riker stays on the ship. $\endgroup$
    – tuvokki
    Nov 8, 2017 at 9:23
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    $\begingroup$ What kind of scientists would be sent to study the environment, ecosystem, and weather? Probably scientists who specialize in studying an environment, ecosystem, or weather. What are you looking for from the community with this question? $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Nov 8, 2017 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ Scientists ?!?!?!? Why send valuable scientists to explore a dangerous new world. Sounds like a job for Grad Students if every I heard of one. And we'll give them a (posthumous) credit on the paper when we write up the findings - fairs fair. $\endgroup$ Nov 8, 2017 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry Noah, but I'm rolling back that edit because changing the premise of the question after you've received answers is strongly discouraged. If you meant to ask about subsequent visits, then you probably want to post a new question, but I also have a feeling that you'll have to describe this world in a lot more detail then (because the people who decide which people to go will know much more about the world in question at that point). $\endgroup$
    – user
    Nov 8, 2017 at 17:42

6 Answers 6


There are two different questions here:

First question: Which scientists are needed on the expedition?

Clearly, competition for space on the exploration ship will be intense. Expect battles, backbiting, politicking, and all manner of behavior unbecoming scientists. To make it even worse, some specialties require a lot of gear (mass spectrometers, autoclaves, you name it). There will be howling when several scientists (~180 lbs each) get bumped in favor of a backup mass spectrometer...

First tier might be ones you absolutely know you'll need to study the planet proper and the space around it

Geologists, weather scientists, chemists, physicists, astrophysicists.

Then ones you'd feel better not omitting, in case there's life there:

Biologists, biochemists

Then, hoping against hope:

Linguists, sociologists (maybe culturologist/anthropologist instead)

Second question: Which scientists will try to bully their way onto the spaceship?

All of them.

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    $\begingroup$ That last line though. +1. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Nov 8, 2017 at 9:25
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    $\begingroup$ Regarding "behavior unbecoming scientists": I don't think there's anything special about scientists that means they should be held to a higher standard (or that other people should be held to a lower standard) when it comes to these kinds of behavior. Not that you were saying so, but some people might infer that from the wording. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Nov 8, 2017 at 10:44
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidZ I can't think of a group of people for which "battles, backbiting, politicking" would not be unseemly, but I'm only speaking to the science crew. Don't get me started on what hijinks the engineering and naval crews are pulling to secure a spot on the vessel... $\endgroup$
    – akaioi
    Nov 8, 2017 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ "battles, backbiting, politicking, and all manner of behavior unbecoming" --- I thought perhaps it might be better to leave the Grants Committee behind on Earth? $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Nov 8, 2017 at 22:42
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    $\begingroup$ You will want generalists or multi-disciplinary scientists. Someone who is as at home with a geologists pick as with a CRISPR lab. $\endgroup$
    – pojo-guy
    Nov 9, 2017 at 6:31

biologists and geologists mostly, of a variety of subdisciplines but no one too specialized at the same time, you want people who know how to take samples correctly and how to assess comparative value of samples, and can work with may aspects of the field equally well.

Like Nasa missions there will be a lot of cross training, you are never just an expert in one field. The more expertise you can pack in each brain the better.

That said overspecialization makes you useless. This is especially true for biologists since right now we only have earth life to study. Your scientists need a broad base. A botanist for instance would be less useful than a general biologist (of equal quality) since whatever is fulfilling the plant like niches is unrelated to earth plants and thus will not mesh well with the assumptions a specialist is used to working with. Likewise a geneticist will be useless if the life there does not use nucleic acids, but would be very helpful if it does, so you should decide if they go in with any information.
This is also affected by how much room you have, and if you know anything about the planet before you go, if you already know it has life for instance biologists become a lot more important and you will want many of them.

Exo-geologists have to understand a lot about many different aspects of geology since many of the familiar rules of geology change on different planets. So you want at least one geochemist, and one exo-geologist at bare minimum. geology is less troubled by specialization since, for instance, volcanoes are volcanoes no matter which planet they are on, so if you have space for a volcanologist bring one.

biochemists, these are the people who will be doing the initial analysis of many samples so you you are going for an extended visit you want some along. for short visit they are less necessary, although would be a helpful bonus if there is space, and a must have for cross-training.

Paleontologists,mostly as cross training, that gives them an advantage with dealing with unexpected ecosystems, and you really want someone looking for fossils.

A Planetary climatologist although for the most part they can work remotely provided you have decent satellites, but if you have room or are staying for a while definitely bring one, they will end up working with the geologists a lot. Even for a shorter visit you definitely want some cross training for this to take some ice cores if possible.

If the planet has oceans, a oceanologist would be a must have, with the same specialization caveat as the biologists.

A medical expert will be important not just for normal mission needs but also for understanding how the world affects your explorers, this is especially important for longer missions.

Ideally you want to release a lot of satellites and remote drones/propes so you cover a lot of land. Even more ideally you want satellite map before you even plan on landing, so you know where the most interesting looking things are. No expedition would be sent to a planet that had not been heavily observed by remote/satellite means or without a map of at least the majority of the planet's surface.

Note I am assuming we are talking about people on the landing mission, there may well be other scientists in a orbital ship, ones who are not concerned with the planets surface, of who can work better remotely.

  • $\begingroup$ Is "oceanologist" the same thing as "marine scientist"? :p $\endgroup$
    – Dubukay
    Nov 8, 2017 at 7:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Dubukay yes , sorry I forget its a rarer use of the term. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Nov 8, 2017 at 14:21

No scientists on the first trip. Astronauts.

Consider Skylab2. The astronauts did science experiments up there. But these were experiments that had been teed up for them - they could follow the recipes and collect the data, which the real scientists on Earth could then argue about and minutely dissect. The astronauts were not following the questions where they led them. The main thing for the Skylab2 crew is that they not die and they be able to keep Skylab functioning.

Pure scientists are a rarefied bunch. These are the people who you want looking at your data and your specimen, thinking the big thoughts. They are not the people you want at your side as you are trying to figure out what is wrong with the lander during your descent. You want another astronaut who has been trained, vetted, spun around, stressed out and whom you can count on to keep you all alive and safely returning home at the end of the mission. On this sort of first contact thing you need versatile generalists in excellent physical shape, excellent mental shape, and ready to follow the chain of command. Astronauts.

On Skylab2 there was a physician. He was also an astronaut. If physician counts as scientist I can imagine there would be one of those along.

The other thing about the science on such a trip is that it would be wide and shallow. There would be a lot of data to collect, quickly. You do not want your entomologist to spend all his time collecting small animals, and forget to take atmospheric samples and geologic samples and magnetic readings and so on. You want a generalist who will carry out all the things that are assigned to be done efficiently and as assigned, and can troubleshoot / triage along the way: an astronaut.

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    $\begingroup$ Oh do I hate this answer. Most astronauts now days have advanced science degrees (aka scientists). Sure in the infancy of space flight we just picked military pilots to be astronauts, largely because they had the critical skill necessary to solve life threaten problems (like the ship not flying right). On an alien world being a soldier would likely not help your chances of survival. Knowledge of chemistry, mechanics, and biology might though. $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Nov 8, 2017 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ I thought the exploration of a new world was more akin to the infancy of space flight than anything else recent. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Nov 8, 2017 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ No, space flight infancy was more about making the ship work which requires pilots and engineers. Alien exploration is more about understanding nature so sciences. Mechanical engineering isn't going to help you with an acid spitting bull like creature nor does being able fly an intersetellar space ship. $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Nov 8, 2017 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ In several of the science fiction books I've read, they try to bring in people with multiple degrees to do exploration, with overlap, in case people are busy or otherwise unable to perform all the required tests. Most of these were required to either have some sort of engineering degree or piloting skills along with being a scientist, with the key value being scientist. Also, according to merriam-webster.com/dictionary/astronaut, the word "astronaut" means "a person who travels beyond the earth's atmosphere". That means anyone who is going on this ship is an astronaut. $\endgroup$ Nov 8, 2017 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ It is far easier to train a scientist to become an astronaut than it is to train an astronaut into a scientist. Case in point: a doctorate might take someone a decade or more to earn. The various astronaut training programs for various countries around the world last about 3-4 years on average, depending on the specific mission and role. $\endgroup$
    – Salda007
    Nov 9, 2017 at 11:15

Let's take a step back before deciding who has to land on this planet.

However advanced this civilization may be so that they succeed in sending an exploring ship to another planet, they still value human life. Therefore they are not going to land a single crew member without good chances of taking him/her back alive. And until disproved, any unexplored environment is hostile.

Step 1 would be deploying a set of satellites to investigate the climate and surface morphology of the planet, to determine local condition and potential hazards. Main goal would be to isolate the best location for first contact with the planet environment, if present.

Step 2 would be sending remotely controlled drones, to determine local chemistry and conditions (is atmosphere breathable? Are there known dangerous chemicals in the environment? How is the local flora and fauna?)

Mind that both previous steps can be highly automated, with expert systems analyzing the bonanza of collected data. Moreover, you don't need a Ph.D in biology to tell that that furry headed pussy with large claws and fangs who is jumping to catch the drone is a threat to humans.

Then, once the local conditions are better known, you can train the people on the spot based on the findings. They don't necessarily need to be top notch experts, they need to know what to do to integrate the data already collected by the automated systems.

The topics on which they would need to be trained are:

  • biology (botanic and zoology)
  • geology

Since they would need to be able to operate and maintain satellites and drone, I expect them to be already skilled in engineering (mechanic, electronic).

Side note: the Apollo astronauts got an intensive training in geology before their missions, so that they could tell which rocks were meaningful to be taken back home.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for Engineering and sensor technicians. A small team of them can keep a fleet of drones and satellites going. Then use the information gathered from them to be 100 time more efficient with the rest of the staff. Does a geologist want to spend their whole time drilling core samples? Or would they be better off set down in the grand canyon where it's all exposed for them? $\endgroup$
    – PCSgtL
    Nov 8, 2017 at 17:12

What scientists? The real question is what is the mission?

A mission of scientific research to an alien world is too broad, the entire scientific community would want in on that. The better way to go about this is what is the objective of the research?

To that end I postulate this: With the advance of Genetic Engineering the GE community would be hungry for extra terrestrial biological solutions (adaptations).

Ground teams are expensive so few can go who do you send?

  • Advanced biologists- being able to quickly identify, evaluate, and scientifically prioritize critical subjects for capture and research is mission critical. Candidates here must be versed in biology of course but also chemistry and genetics (which aren't completely dethatched fields). These additional disciplines are required of each candidate in order to better full fill their ultimate function of finding the most valuable specimens.

  • Trappers - Though not a scientist, highly skilled individuals in the understanding of animal behavior, combat, and trapping (usually not taught in academia). With the amount of education required of the advanced biologist, there would be critical need for a more expendable individuals who can assume the risk of capturing dangerous organisms. General biology would be helpful for these candidates in order to better communicate with the advanced biologist.

  • A (1 - 2) Microbiologist - Microbiology would be another critical ecosystem to explore however due to the magnitude of its search area this would not be the initial focus. These individuals would be more dedicated to ensuring health, safety, and proper containment protocols are met. Ensuring that ours and their microbes do not cross contaminate. Providing medical expertise in the event of an emergency or contamination. Candidates need to be specialized in microbiology, pathology, medicine, and surgery. When not serving their primary role they would be expected to try and collect specimens for research. (These would arguably be the most difficult to find as they would have the most diverse collection of specific specialized knowledge, they are however not improbable).

  • A Technician - An expedition such as this would undoubtedly be heavily burdened with technology. Someone would need to be present who can repair and maintain said technology in the case of failure. When not performing said primary function they could also serve as a comm officer and quarter master. Piloting skills would also be advantageous as they would likely stay with the ground ship/ base camp. Required disciplines: Mechanic, Electrical, and even software engineering would be required.

Some bonus disciplines would increase candidates chances:

  • vetenary medicine: Vets are trained in adaptive inter-species medicine. Having this experience would be useful in assisting biologists or preserving specimens. Its not required as advanced biologists and the microbiologists could wing their way around this as far as the ground team is concerned.

  • military experience: responsiveness to command and threat recognition would be advantageous as well as experience in operating firearms. Weapons would be brought as there is no telling how aggressive the fauna or even flora will be.

  • Geology: would be nice to have this skill in addition to others as it can help biologists find more interesting biomes. It can also add some useful research data and cautionary insight. However satellites can develop more/better geological data than a single isolated geologist.

Unnecessary Experts:

  • Geologists: An alien world with life and you want to send a geologist, **** no! Rocks are nice and all but life is more interesting. A large chunk of geology can be better handled by orbital sensors from a satellite and interpreted elsewhere by geologists.

  • Meteorologists: completely useless. A pre-programmed satellite could effectively provide this function as well as collect effective enough data to be later analyzed by said experts elsewhere.

  • Pilot: Automation could easily replace this role as well as other specialists could be trained as an effective enough redundancy.

    • Chemists: Can be replaced by technology. However they will be among the army of eager scientists awaiting the return of samples and data.

    • Oceanology's: This specialty would be ok to have but initial trips would likely avoid in-depth oceanic research as it requires more hardware and initially can be largely and effectively enough handled by the advanced biologist and orbital censors.

  • Paleontologists: Would also be unnecessary. The focus of initial trips would be the living life. Once that's thoroughly explored maybe they will care enough about what existed before it. Not to undermine the field of paleontology but it takes an obvious back seat in priority.

  • Biochemists & Geneticists: Too specialized for this trip. likely they would be among the army of scientists awaiting the data.

  • Botanist: Botanists are overly specialized more in terrestrial flora. Ideally you would want a more generalized field like biology over this.

  • Linguists: would be a gamble. Life can be detected with a probe but intelligent life isn't necessarily so easy to detect. Sending a linguist solely on the hope that intelligent life is present is a bit of a stretch especially because if there isn't any you have a completely wasted seat. Early explorers were capable of establishing basic communication with natives and initially if intelligent life was discovered I suspect they would put faith in their intelligent people figuring something out. So this specialist would likely come in subsequent missions.


Competition would be high, however resources would be limited and educational requirements would be high as well. Technology would greatly reduce the need for various on the ground disciplines. With such limited space the hirer would have first pick and would likely pick people who have the most diverse critical skills to reduce team size requirements. Basically it would be a game of how much science can you extract with as few people possible. The critical approach to this is what research do you need boots on the ground to conduct versus what can you get from automated censors because you can always collect things to bring back to an army of researchers.


Do you know for sure that there is plant and animal life on that planet? Most planets won't have any, so anyone following up on that will be on the second trip.

The first trip has three main concerns: getting there, staying alive during the visit, and getting home again. Or at least getting the data home, anyway. There have been definite plans for one-way trips to Mars with little prospect of personal survival but guaranteed fame for the rest of human history, and your astronauts may ultimately be destined to die there, but they must not snuff it until they've sent data back to prepare for the next mission. With that in mind, it gives you a very short list of scientists...

None at all.

Every crew member on that mission will be an astronaut, dedicated to getting the spacecraft there and keeping it running during the mission. Some (most?) may have a science or engineering background, but this will very much be a secondary concern. The science missions will be pre-planned, scripted, timed and practised on Earth. There will be absolutely zero opportunity for personal research, because a large multidisciplinary body of scientists will have decided before the mission what data is absolutely required, and will have planned priorities and scripts to ensure that data comes back, and the mission commander will be keeping their crew on script and on deadline. The very last thing you want is some eager-beaver scientist vanishing off on their own little personal tangent. This is a massive trillion-dollar enterprise, and it absolutely cannot be left to chance.

So who will you get? Pretty much the crew from The Martian. All of them are talented individuals in their own right, and superb problem-solvers. All of them have some specialist areas, but all those specialist areas could be carried out competently by any other crew member.


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