World Ships in Science and Science Fiction

In 1918, Robert Goddard, the American rocket pioneer, still six years from starting his experiments with liquid fuel rockets, wrote a brief paper titled: “The Ultimate Migration.” In the short essay, Goddard submitted that to reach the stars humanity could take “an asteroid or a small moon” hollow it out and turn it into a huge starship. With “radioactivity furnishing light and heat” a trip as long as “perhaps 10,000 years for a passage to the nearest stars” would be possible. Goddard went on to suggest “the possibility that after many thousands of years, the characteristics and natures of the passengers might change, with each succeeding generation.”

In just 819 words Goddard presaged much of the science fact and science fiction around the concept of the “world ships.”

Ten years after Goddard’s paper, the so-called father of astronautic theory, the Soviet Russian scientist, Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky, wrote “The Future of Earth and Mankind.” In this 1928 work Tsiolkovsky suggest that a fleet of "Noah's Arks," be built to let humanity leave Earth, saying; “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.” Tsiolkovsky’s arks are self-sufficient, man-made ships the size of small planets. These world ships would travel to distant star systems, a voyage taking hundreds or thousands of years. During the long journey, the crew would live out their lives while maintaining and piloting the vessels, the crew would have children who would then maintain and pilot the vessels in their turn.

In 1929 John Desmond (J. D.) Bernal, the British-Irish scientist, historian and philosopher published “The World, the Flesh & the Devil.” In the first section of the essay, Bernal sketches in great detail a proposed design for world ships, which became known as “Bernal Spheres.” A Bernal Sphere would be a “sphere about ten miles or so in diameter” with a crew of about 20,000 people. The world ship would be constructed in space and made from materials collected from moons and asteroids. The ships would use solar power as an energy source and could use “light-sails” as a means of propulsion.

After the end of World War Two, the British Interstellar Society (BIS) began to conceptualize world ships as a viable means of human interstellar travel. In 1953, nuclear physicist and member of the BIS, Leslie R. Shepherd in his 1953 article “Interstellar Flight” lays out his concept of a world ship. For Shepard the total allowable time of a voyage would be no more than a 1,000 years, or about 30 generations. This would be like the ship was launched in the time of King Canute and arrived during the tenure of President Truman. The world ship would need to be “a veritable Noah’s Ark” filled with different plants and animals. The population of all species on the world ship, including the human crew, would have to be strictly controlled. The vehicle would, of course, have to be colossal, Shepard said: “…in fact, be a very small planetoid.” For drive and internal power Shepard suggested that either nuclear, ion, fusion or antimatter energy could be used.

The BIS continues to this day to produce scholarly works on the subject of world ships. For example in 2012, the BIS published “World Ships - Architectures & Feasibility Revisited” by Andreas M Hein and others. This paper lays out a taxonomy of world ships or interstellar arks. Under the category of world ships are “sleeper ships” in which most, if not all the crew are in some sort of hibernation, or suspended animation, during the long voyage between stars. There are “seed ships” which carry embryos, gametes or other recorded genetic materials designed to be transplanted onto a distant colony world. “Generation ships” are enormous, self-sustaining starships in which the generations of the crew live and die on the slow sub-light speed journey between stars. Rather arbitrarily Hein et al defined generation ships with starting crews of more than 100,000 as “world ships” and with crews under 100,000 as “colony ships”. However, there is little practical differences, except for size, of world ships or colony ships.

A world ship’s crew would not have to start off in the thousands. One scientist calculated that a starting population of between 80 to160 screened, unrelated individuals, with an even gender ratio, would be enough to maintain a growing and healthy population for some ten generations. Others have suggested ships with a crew of some 100 pregnant women as the starting point, or a crew with a male to female ratio of one man to five or more women. Further, a variant of a “seed ship” would be a starship with an all-female crew carrying a sperm bank.

As to speed, by Hein’s classification “slow boats” travel slower than 10 percent the speed of light (.10C), whereas “sprinters” travel faster than .10C. To give some idea as to time and distance between stars, our closest stellar neighbor is Proxima Centuri, about 4.3 light years away, so a ship traveling at .10C would take just over 40 years, or two generations to reach. For a further example, the Voyager 2 space probe, would take about 80,000 years to reach Proxima Centuri.

Over time, scientists have suggested various sizes for world ships. So-called Bernal Spheres would be about ten-miles in diameter with a surface area of 314 square miles. Other thinkers proposed to dig out the interiors of asteroids, rotating them to create pseudo-gravity and using them as world ships. Such ships could be as large as some 15 to 20 kilometers in diameter with a total mass of 168 to 480 billion tons and a habitable area of about 620 to 1810 square kilometers. Such large world ships could support a population of several thousand people for hundreds of years. Given humanity's level of technological development, a world ship is the currently viable means for interstellar travel.

In Fiction

In March 1935 Astounding Stories published Murray Leinster’s "Proxima Centauri", the first story which could reasonably be said to deal with a world ship. The story takes place on a seven-year voyage from Sol to Proxima Centuri aboard the starship Adastra (Latin: To the Stars). The Adastra is a spherical ship crewed by families and “could subsist her crew forever…” if that crew “could perpetuate to make a voyage of a thousand years.”

In October 1940 Amazing Stories published "The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years" by Don Wilcox. In the story the generation ship, the Flashaway, is launched on a voyage conceived to go for 600 years. A single crewmember, Gregory Grimstone, called the “Keeper of Tradition” is placed in hibernation and awaking every hundred years to check on the progress of the voyage and the crew. During the trip, every time he awakes, the “keeper” finds profound changes among the crew, including dynastic dictatorships and degeneration into barbarity. At the end of the story the “keeper” takes over the ship to try and restore the passenger and crews to civilization. He also finds that faster-than-light (FTL) ships have beaten the Flashaway to its destination, making the voyage needless and futile. In this very early example of the subgenre, Wilcox explored the two main themes of world ship stories: societal change, especially societal decay among the passengers and crew of a world ship and the theme that the advancing technology of FTL travel makes the slow voyage needless.

In May and October 1941 Astounding Stories published “Universe” and then "Common Sense" by Robert A. Heinlein. These stories were then collected in 1963 into the book Orphans of the Sky. Heinlein was very likely inspired by Bernal’s “The World, the Flesh & the Devil” to write the story of the world ship, Vanguard. In the stories, because of a long ago mutiny, the ship’s crew have fallen into barbarity and superstition. The society on the Vanguard is very much like medieval Europe, with the “crew” being the serfs and the “officers” acting as the lords. The functions to sustain life, such as recycling, are done by rote and have developed into semi-religious rituals. Hugh Hoyland, the protagonist, discovers the truth of the Vanguard and its long forgotten mission and attempts to complete it. In Orphans, Heinlein created perhaps the classic world ship story and also perhaps the definitive exploration of the theme of societal decay on a starship, this time to the point that the crew forgets they are even on a ship. With “Universe” and “Common Sense” Heinlein added to the definition of world ship. Now a world ship was not just a gigantic spaceship with a crew in the tens of thousands, but also a ship where the inhabitants think it is the whole world.

Arthur C. Clarke’s first professional sale, “Rescue Party” printed in the May 1946’s Astounding Stories, tells the story of an alien starship coming to rescue humankind from the Sun about to go nova. The aliens find an empty Earth, humanity having fled the dying sun in a fleet of world ships.

In Clifford D. Simak’s “Spacebred Generations" from the August 1953 Science-Fiction Plus, we find a remarkable play on the themes of societal degeneration and forgetfulness in a world ship. In the story, the world ship’s builders purposely wiped the memory of the passengers, producing a culture ignorant of its situation. This purposeful amnesia is designed to keep the population passive. Further, this culture of ignorance is reinforced by a religious system that encourages obliviousness and discourages curiosity. This also helps to keep the passengers docile. For Simak, only with ignorance about Earth, history and the voyage itself, would a ship's population be able to deal with the societal pressure of the generations’ long trip between stars.

Also in 1953 Milton Lesser published the juvenile novel, The Star Seekers, perhaps the first book sized treatment of the world ship concept. In the book a hollowed out asteroid has been launched on a 200 year or six generation long journey to Alpha Centuri. The four way division of society has led to societal decay and superstitious beliefs about the ship. The crew have forgotten they are even on a ship. The hero, Mikal from Astrosphere, must unite the ship again to save it from crashing into its destination planet.

In Frank M. Robinson’s “The Oceans Are Wide” from April 1954 Science Stories, the crew knows they are on a world ship, but the society on the ship only continues to function through a strict inheritance hierarchy. The story is a political potboiler where a son fights to take over from his dying father as the chairman of the ship’s ruling committee.

In the September 1954 Galaxy we have "A Start in Life" by Arthur Sellings (Arthur Gordon Ley) in which the crew of a world ship is devastated by a plague. The only two survivors are two five year olds, a boy and a girl, being raised by advanced robots.

Brian W. Aldiss’s first novel, 1958’s Non-Stop, later released as Starship in the US, is a masterful reworking of the themes of decay and degeneration on a world ship. Aldiss thought Heinlein’s working of those themes was very good, but not completely developed. In the book, a world ship returning from Procyon is decimated by a plague and the crew has sunk into barbarism and lost the knowledge they are on a ship. The novels protagonist, Roy Complain, discovers he is on a ship, which is in orbit around the earth and has been for years. The earth people are trying to repair the ship so they may bring the ships inhabitant's to Earth, but over time the ship people have mutated into smaller than average with a compressed life span, making their reintegration into earth society difficult at best.

E.C. Tubb’s The Space-Born, published in 1956, was originally a serial in the April and June 1955 New Worlds titled "Star Ship". The novel tells the story of starship on a 300-year flight to Pollux. The crew of the ship is well aware they are on a ship. But life on the ship is "nasty, brutish and short.” People are born, learn a job, reproduce and are sentenced to death at age 40.

John Brunner's 1957 "Lungfish" plays on the theme of what happens when those people born on a world ship, called in this story the “tripborn”, will not leave the ship once it reaches its destination and leaving the only “world” that they have ever known.

Chad Oliver's "The Wind Blows Free" from July 1957 Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine explores the same themes as “Lungfish”. A man is driven to the edge of insanity by the teeming and suffocating culture of a world ship, supposedly in flight to a colony world. When he finally opens an airlock he finds that the ship had reached its destination and landed years before and the crew refuses to leave or even let other inhabitants know they are on a planet.

In a rare radical feminist’s approach to the subject of life on a world ship, we have Judith Merril's "Wish Upon a Star" from the December 1958 Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, which has a ship initially crewed by twenty women and just four men. As society on the ship develops, the gender imbalance results in an authoritarian matriarchy with men the oppressed group.

Throughout the 1960s and up to the mid-1970s science fiction writers continued to produce world ship stories, but most fit neatly into the well-developed themes of social and cultural deterioration, J. T. Macintosh’s 200 Years to Christmas published in 1961 is a prime example of such rather conventional stories.

In 1961 the Italian movie Il Pianeta Degli Uomini Spenti in English: The Planet of Extinct Men, directed by Antonio Margheriti, we have the first example of a world ship on film. The film was release in America as Battle of the Worlds. In the movie, a huge world ship, called the Outsider, whose alien crew have all died while in flight, enters the Solar System and its automated systems puts it in orbit around Earth, causing terrestrial catastrophes. A plan is developed to destroy the Outsider with nuclear weapons before its mere presence destroys human civilization.

On TV, the original Star Trek TV series dealt with a world ship in the 1968 episode "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”, written by Rik Vollaerts, and directed by Tony Leader. On the world ship called Yonada, the inhabitants have forgotten they are on a starship and are ruled by an advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) called the Oracle.

Standing out from the run of the mill world ship stories produced in the 1960s and 1970s is Harry Harrison's noteworthy Captive Universe, published in 1969. In the novel, the asteroid Eros has been hollowed out and converted into a world ship in which the crew and colonists have been rather crazily forced into the roles of medieval monks and Aztec peasants and genetically engineered to maintain stability on the ship until they reach their destination.

The television series The Starlost, (1973) created by Harlon Ellison explores many common themes of the world ship subgenre. Ellison was so disappointed in the series that he insisted his name be removed from the credits and his snarky non-de-plume, Cordwainer Bird, be used instead. In the series, the Earthship Ark is carrying the last survivors of Earth to a distant star. Some occupants of the Ark are aware they are on a spaceship, others are not. To maintain separated cultures, the passengers are locked into domes and do not generally interact with each other. In the novelization of the pilot script, titled Phoenix without Ashes published in 1975, and written by Ellison and Edward Bryant, an Amish community, the entire city of San Francisco and many other distinct cultures are loaded on the ship and then sealed in their separate domes.

From the mid-1970s on works set on, world ships fell out of favor with many science fiction writers. Notable exceptions are Kevin O'Donnell Jr's Mayflies published in 1979, in which a nearly immortal human brain is linked to a world ship. The immortal brain has some control over the human lives in the ship, but generally sees the crew and passengers as living short and rather meaningless lives, like mayflies, thus the book’s title.

Also notable is Pamela Sargent's juvenile novel Earthseed from 1983, which tells the story of a seed ship that is a hollowed-out asteroid, nearing the end of its voyage. The ship is now birthing and raising a generation of teenaged humans to colonize the new world. The teenagers are forced into the Hollow to learn to live on a planet. Earthseed is the first book in a trilogy and was followed by Farseed, (2007) and 2010’s Seed Seeker.

The massive four volume work by Gene Wolfe the Book of the Long Sun series with 1993’s Nightside of the Long Sun,1994’s Lake of the Long Sun and Caldé of the Long Sun and 1996’s Exodus from the Long Sun all take place in a world ship called the Whorl.

Slow Train to Arcturus (2008) by Eric Flint and David Freer presents the reader with some new notions about a world ship. The ship, Slowtrain, does not have a single destination, but rather “drops” human habitation spheres in the goldilocks zone of the various stars it passes. The ship does not slow down to make planet fall and the suns visited don’t even need to have habitable planets to be colonized. Also, the ship is loaded with “nutters” and “oddballs” and “a bunch of fanatics and lunatics ", which allows the Earth to be rid of these troublesome types as well as allowing humanity to colonize the nearby stars.

In 2014, the Syfy Channel aired the mini-series Ascension in which a world ship launched in secret in the 1960s is now half-way into its century long voyage to Proxima Centauri.

The science fiction comedy-drama, The Orville, an homage to the original Star Trek, broadcast its generation ship story; "If the Stars Should Appear" in 2017. In the show the crew of the Orville finds a world ship ruled by a theocratic dictator and in which the passengers are unaware they are on a ship. The Orville’s crew repairs the world ship and opens its skylight windows, enabling the populace to see the stars for the first time and to realize they are on a vast ship.


In science fiction, successive generations of writers explore the concepts, ideas and fears that are uppermost in popular culture at the time of their writing. Thus each successive wave of world ship stories reflected ideas, conceptions and uncertainties of the time in which they are authored. Further, as scientific and technological advancement has taken place so have the portrayals of the various world ships in fiction. So the pre-World War Two stories such as Murray Leinster’s "Proxima Centauri" and Don Wilcox’s “The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years” demonstrate both an undaunted assurance and a growing anxiety about a future that might be stripped of the unique American values of the time. Technically the ships in these stories are presented as being are relatively basic without recycling, or greenhouses. Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rescue Party” has the world ships powered by chemical rockets. Further the stories present the idea that one extraordinary person, using brainpower and willpower may solve any problem, such as Hugh Hoyland, the hero in Robert A. Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky or Gregory Grimstone from “The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years”.

After World War Two, world ship stories shifted, as the popular culture started to echo the growing anxiety about a worldwide catastrophe of some kind like a nuclear war. So in the world ship subgenre we see such stories such as Aldiss’s Non-Stop and E. C. Tubb’s The Space-Born reflecting these fears. However, the presentation of the world ships advanced, technically becoming self-sustaining, with recycling, hydroponics and advanced propulsion systems and even the use of hollowed out asteroids, such as Eros in Harry Harrison’s Captive Universe.

The advent of the counter-culture New Wave movement in the 1960s sets up another group of ideas on the world ship subgenre. Works like Kevin O'Donnell’s Mayflies and Pamela Sergeant’s Earthseed mirror a more artistic sensibility, with much less focus on technology and explanations of science and more focus on people, human interaction and society. At the last we have Flint and Freer’s Slow Train to Arcturus from 2008 which brings us back full circle to a story with a highly detailed scientific and social background and with a smart and determined hero much like the classic world ship stories from the 1940s.


Bernal, J. D. “The World, the Flesh & the Devil” (1929). Online at

Caroti, Simone. The Generation Starship In Science Fiction: A Critical History, 1934-2001(Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2011).

Carrington, Damian “’Magic Number’ for Space Pioneers Calculated” New Scientists, (15 February 2002). Online at:

Generation Ships” Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, (19 October 2017). Online at

Goddard, Robert. “The Ultimate Migration”, (1918/2012). Online at 2012/03/23/4110/the-ultimate-migration

Hein, Andreas M. et al. “World Ships - Architectures & Feasibility Revisited” presented at the British Interplanetary Society symposium “World Ships – The Long Journey to the Stars” (17 August 2011). Online at

Project World Ship” British Interplanetary Society (June, 1984). Online at ship

Tsiolkovsky, Konstantin E. “The Future of Earth and Mankind” in Selected Works of Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky. (Honolulu, HI: University Press of the University of the Pacific, 1928/2004).

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