What Personnel Are Needed on a Spaceship Exploring Strange New Worlds?

July 11th, 2012

I like to write stories set in outer space on space ships, and I think a lot about stupid things like what is the necessary crew size and their expertise.  There are some guides based on long duration seafaring, but those are somewhat imperfect in the space environment.

So far, we haven’t had space missions of the kind I’m thinking about — ones that take months to years that don’t have options for quick escape or rescue.

From a fictional standpoint, as well as a practical standpoint, minimizing crew size is important.

While it’s possible to assume improvements in our technology that would allow computers or robots to fill in for certain duties, it’s not clear when or how exactly those will occur.  It’s also possible to assume aliens exist, but it’s not clear that they do or that we’ll encounter any of them any time soon.

So, imagine a spaceship on a mission to visit a nearby star system, like one of the missions proposed such as Project Icarus.  What group of humans of minimal number is realistically needed?

I believe you need:

1. A commander.  Someone capable and trustworthy in charge whose word is law.  A small group of people light years from home is not a place to practice democracy in an emergency.

2. A doctor.  People get sick and injured — people who cannot be replaced.

3. An engineer.  Ships and their equipment get damaged — equipment that cannot be replaced unless you bring spares.

4. A scientist.  Someone needs to know about stars, planets, the space environment, and, if the mission is exploration, data taking and analysis.  Someone needs to locate objects of interest in the star system and prioritize them.

5. A pilot.  Someone needs to know how to move the ship around and get to the objects of interest.

If you don’t have other information, like the presence of aliens, intelligent or otherwise, I think this is the minimum skill set.  Of course it’s possible for one person to have multiple skills, but you want some redundancy.  It’s possible that the ship and science goals are too complicated for 1-2 people each and a larger team is needed.

Have I forgotten something critical?  Again, we’re assuming no known aliens.  Aliens would require an additional complement to the crew concerning communication, defense, negotiation…perhaps even space lawyers, ugh!



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