Atomic Rockets

Crew Size

On the topic of crew size, Matt Picio said that a modern wet-navy warship averages 15-20 crew members per kiloton of displacement.

However, a more accurate measurement takes into account "core crew", the minimum number of watch-standers to steer and fight the vessel. Core crew is about 80, and represents the minimum number of crew for a long-duration warship. Additional crew is fairly linear, at 1 crew per 100 tons of vessel. Automation will eventually halve these figures.

Ken Burnside says that for routine operations of a warship, you need a minimum of 10 people. Combat is, of course, far from routine. There are many complicated factors involved. For a back of the envelope calculation, figure roughly 10 to 16 crewmen per kiloton, though the lower end figure presupposes that most of the tonnage consists of armor and other things that do not require babysitting. If it sucks current, has moving parts, or works with a pressure or temperature differential, it needs babysitting.

For estimating the crew size of a long-duration military vessel, Sean Schauer has created a nice Excel spreadsheet (instructions are on last page). You'll have to decide how many shifts or "watches" there will be in a 24 hour period, generally from three to six. The spreadsheet was designed for a real-life wet navy vessel, so you may have to adapt it a bit. If you use this spreadsheet please give Mr. Knight credit for it.

Civilian ships average 10 to 25 crew members, depending on size (container ships and supertankers). Liners have about 0.8 to 1.2 crew for every passenger.

Adjust these figures to match your vision of spacecraft crews.

Figure on crew members being from 68 to 113 kilograms each (150-250 pounds). Although if the Solar Guard has any sense, there will be a maximum weight limit on rocketmen. One hopes that there will not be a chronic problem with bulimia in the Guard.

Keeping in mind that everybody knows the Polaris only needed Tom Corbett, Roger Manning, and Astro for crew. Tom was the captain/pilot, Roger was the astrogator/communications/radar man, and Astro was the propulsion system engineer. And on the StarDuster, you only had Scott McCloud (the Space Angel) as captain/pilot, the lovely Crystal as communications/radar/nav, and Taurus as the engineer/gunner.

In spacecraft as shown on movies and TV, they often use the "bomber crew" model. That is, a crew like a World War II bomber aircraft. This generally takes the form of a crew of half a dozen misfits each with some specialized talent needed for a successful finish to the mission.

And don't forget the crew in FORBIDDEN PLANET. As in many wet naval vessels, a lot of the enlisted men are going to be boys around 18 years old.

Once you have established the size of the crew, you can start allocating space for their quarters and supplies for food & life support.

Standing Watch

Traditional US Navy watches
2000 - 0000First watch
0000 (midnight) - 0400Mid watch
0400 - 0800Morning watch
0800 - 1200 (noon)Forenoon watch
1200 - 1600Afternoon watch
1600 - 1800First Dog watch
1800 - 2000Last Dog watch

The problem with having one crew member for each ship function is when do they sleep? Obviously you need at least two crewmembers for each post that has to be constantly manned, or hope that the mission doesn't last longer than a day. Caffeine only goes so far.

So what you do is divide a day into a number of "watches", and for each post that must be constantly manned there will be a number of crew members sufficient to fill all the watches. "Standing a watch" means being on duty at a specific station during a particular portion of the day. Crewmembers who are currently on watch are called "watchstanders." Under normal conditions, a crew member standing watch is relieved of all other duties. Please note that "General Quarters" is NOT a normal condition.

At the end of their watch, a crew member will wait until they are "relieved" by the crew member in the next watch. The first crew member will tell the second that "all is well". What that actually means is "everything is OK, if anything goes wrong it's your problem now."

The crew will be divided into "duty sections" and each duty section is assigned to one or more watches. A ship will have three, four, or six duty sections, with each duty section assigned to a number of watches to ensure full coverage. That is, if a ship has six watches in a day, and there are three duty sections, each duty section will be assigned to 6 / 3 = 2 watches. There are more details here.

Generally a 24 hour "day" will be divided into six 4-hour watches. However, depending on the ship, the number of watches in a day can be anything from three to six. Sometimes the watch that occurs during dinner time is split into two "dog watches." This allows the people assigned to that watch to eat their evening meal. Dog watches also ensure that there is an odd number of watches in a day, which ensures that a duty section is not stuck with the same watches every day.

On the Starship Enterprise, there are six watches: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon and Zeta. They have no dog watches because dinner is available from a replicator at any hour. And since there is no day and night in space, there is no way that a duty section can even tell if it is standing the same watch every day.

Some posts do not need to be manned round the clock, so there will be fewer crew assigned than the number of watches in a day.

The watch system works nicely with the "hot bunk" system. This is where several crew members in different duty sections share one bunk in a desperate attempt by spacecraft designers to reduce crew quarter mass. (Barry Messina explained to me that watch standing and hot bunking are totally independent of each other)

The first officer on a small ship is responsible for creating the "watchbill" for all crew members. This is a document specifying the watch rotation for the crew, it tells the crew who has to be where and when. On a larger ship, the department heads will be responsible for creating the watchbill for their department. There will be a different watchbill depending upon whether the ship is in space or on a planet.

As usual, when you ask me a question, the correct answer is: it depends.

US Navy practice is to design a Watch, Quarter and Station Bill during the ship design process. Imagine a poster board three feet long and two feet high. Each person has an individual horizontal line. The columns, from left to right, begin with the billet sequence number (something the personnel accounting folks use to keep track of requirements before any actual names are assigned), then the name of the person, then the general quarters station. The next set of columns will be assignments for other 'stations', like various steaming conditions (Condition 2, 3, 4, 5) then various other events (underway replenishment, flight quarters, cleaning stations) and places (berthing assignment, import duty section, underway duty section) and on and on. The WQ&S bill as originally planned covers where every body is supposed to be for every type of watch station and evolution the ship is intended to accomplish. It is normally based on the notion that everyone has a place to be for general quarters, the ship will operate with 3 equal sections for normal at-sea ops, and 4 or 5 (depending) sections when in port. The WQS Bill also has listings for abandon ship stations: which lifeboat are you supposed to be in? This should be updated every single time the ship gets underway.

Of course, once the ship gets turned over to the Commanding Officer, changes start. If the ship does not have enough qualified bodies to man 3 underway sections, then you'll slide to 2 sections (known as port and starboard watches). Some parts of the ship could be standing port and starboard watches while other parts of the ship, with more qualified bodies, might be in a 4-section rotation. Depending on how the Commanding Officer (CO), Executive Officer(XO) and department heads decide to run things, the entire WQS Bill might be centrally managed by the Senior Watch Officer (typically the most senior department head). An alternative is to have the departments each run their own watch bills, with the Senior Watch Officer (and the department heads) providing a watch bill for the CO that lists the key bridge, CIC, and engineering watches. Over time, the WQS bill becomes fractured, with some parts being updated by some groups, and the rest being ignored. A newly reported person will be assigned an empty bunk, but the WQS Bill may or may not be updated.

Note: in the day of data bases and computerization and networked admin aboard ship, it may be possible now to actually maintain the entire WQS Bill up to date all the time. That would be great, and I'd love to see it. It's a great management tool when it is up to date, and a monster to have to update across all departments and all possible watches, quarters, and stations. Just keeping track of who is assigned where in a five-section inport rotation can keep 5 chiefs busy. A number of these watch teams have to accomplish team training, particularly for damage control and fire-fighting. As an example, if one of those teams has 14 bodies, and the number of bodies assigned to the team that went to the team training as part of the team drops below 10, then the team gets decertified and all 14 have to go through another team training session. Many of these team training sessions are held off the ship, so the training management folks on the ship have to get a quota, make sure all 14 bodies are available and actually show up for the team training, blah blah blah.

Now we get to the question of how to organize the watch sections. One of the key considerations for this is the issue of when the galley is operating, which is the subject of negotiation between the XO and Supply Officer. The watch schedule has to provide enough time for the on-coming watch section to eat and get up on watch and for the off-going section to get out of their watch spaces and over to the mess decks to eat. Therefore, even if each department is running their own watch bills, and various timing schemes for watches are in effect, some mechanism needs to exist to ensure everyone has a chance to get something to eat. No matter what, for some part of the 24-hour day the galley (or galleys, on larger ships) and the places where people eat have to be shut down for cleaning. These spaces are also used to host training sessions and various meetings.

In my experience, one frequent method to deal with the watches in Combat Information Center (CIC: part of the Operations Department) is to have all the Operations Specialists in a port and starboard rotation. That means half of the folks are on watch, and the rest of the group is off watch. One reason this can work is that normally there are more bodies available than actual watch positions: more bodies than seats. Since the Operations Specialists have lots of other admin and training and cleaning things to do in CIC, the folks 'on watch' actually are being rotated around by the Chief: some folks are in chairs, with headphones on, staring at scopes, talking on inter phones or radios, and so forth. Other folks may be preparing charts, reviewing message traffic, preparing for exercises, cleaning, training, or any number of other odds and ends. While the OS types used to try and convince people that they really had it rough being on watch 12 hours at a time, in fact that's not remotely what they were doing. Most of the sit-down, be-on-watch activities have human performance limits: the individual performance starts to degrade after 45 minutes. The wise Chief will therefore rotate people around between the various positions and the other admin duties. Because there are an excess of bodies, sending some of the 'on-watch' folks down to eat does not impair the watch team performance. After eating, those folk return to CIC and slide into chairs so others can go eat. If a special evolution, such as flight quarters or underway replenishment, is called away then the extra bodies from the watch section fill in. This can be a problem when we recognize that there are job training requirements for the individual positions on the special evolutions, and merely sending the two bodies closest to the hatch when the evolution is announced is actually the wrong way to do it. However, it's also my experience that the Ops guys get away with this crap all the time unless somebody senior is paying attention. The real reason the Ops types like port and starboard is the 12 hours off watch when they can sleep, play cards, and otherwise not be under the eye of some supervisor. The Ops and CIC leadership tends to be in CIC, and guys hanging out in berthing have a pretty good chance of remaining unmolested.

The situation is usually different in engineering, where having enough qualified folks to get into a 3-section rotation is not guaranteed. Or, some individual watch stations may be in a 3-man rotation, while others are in port and starboard.

I'm used to seeing the surface ships use a dog watch, which is doing the short watches around the time of the evening meal. My most recent time underway was in July this year, and the crew was running dog watches. The bridge and engineering people in a 3-section watch will use this short rotation, while the CIC people running port and starboard will ignore the whole thing. The start and stop times of the short watches will vary, mostly driven by how the supply department leadership makes their arguments to the XO and command master chief. Remember that the supply department has to provide 4 meals per day, not 3.

The bottom line is that there's no one way to run watches, and even within one hull, different parts of the organization may be on different watch and/or shift schedules. Another factor can be how close you are to a major inspection, and the amount of time required (as recommended by the department heads, and approved by the XO and CO) to run drills. Some training evolutions can be hazardous to the fancy electronics, so the smart combat systems officers will try to manage the schedule so that all the expensive electronics can be shut down while the engineers are messing with the electrical distribution system. If the ship conducts and all-hands evolution like general quarters, you have to have a plan for how goes on watch once the General Quarters (GQ) is over, and depending on how long you spent at GQ, it may have an impact on when the supply department can have lunch ready, and you still have to get guys fed before they go on watch, and still stay open till the folks that have been on watch get off watch and come in to eat. It's complicated.

The watch stations to be manned vary by unit employment (operating independently or as part of a group), threat level, weather, manpower and the qualification levels of all the various bodies, and on and on. Engineers might be in port and starboard, while all the department heads are totally off the watch bill. I've also seen times when there are only two qualified Tactical Action Officers (the XO and the Combat Systems Officer) because the CO disqualified the Ops officer and told the Chief Engineer to stand Engineering Officer of the Watch watches because the CO didn't trust the rest of the engineering department junior officers. This was NOT a happy ship.

It is a mistake to confuse the watch rotation with hot bunking. Hot bunking means you have more bodies than bunks. Period. This will have to get managed, normally within each department, but it may not have watch rotation as a solution: the folks without bunks tend to be junior and unqualified and not particularly useful.

My personal preference for CIC is a 3-section rotation of 6-hour watches. This is intended to thin out the excess bodies in CIC: if you are on watch, then that's what you are doing. When you get off watch, you grab something to eat and report back to your space for training, cleaning, maintenance, and are the 'ready duty' pool to fill in for underway replenishment and/or flight quarters duties. If the section leader says you are done, then you can take off. At most, you work 4 1/2 hours, then eat and you are off for 6 hours. This may not be such a good idea for bridge watches: you don't get to sit down, and the watches can be massively boring as you stare out the windows watching the waves go up and down. It just depends on where the ship is and what it's doing. It's up to the senior petty officers and chiefs to monitor how people are doing, and have the discretion to allow somebody to slide out and catch some extra rack time. The further along in a deployment you get, the more bodies get qualified, and the flexibility to manage people increases.

Barry Messina

It's not as bad as I expected. Piniaz is the sort of watch officer who stays out of the way. He makes his presence felt only when he joins Chief Nicastro by making sure Westhause's preprogrammed jumps are putting the ship into the right places in the search pattern. The astrogator can't be on the job all the time, though he does sleep less than anyone else.

Yanevich's shipboard title is a misnomer this patrol (First Watch Officer). The Commander himself has taken the first watch. Yanevich really has the second. Piniaz has the third. In Line ships the Astrogation Officer normally stands the third watch. In Climbers that usually falls to the Ship's Services Officer. The Commander is kept free.

The Old Man thinks our Ensign too green. In the quiet passages, though, he brings Bradley in for a watch. He hands it to me at times, too. Sometimes Diekereide takes a turn "just in case." The Commander has even dragged Varese in on rare occasion. One of an officer's unwritten duties is to learn everything possible. It may save your ship someday.

Watch schedules don't mean much aboard a Climber, except to officers, who assume four-hour chunks of responsibility. The men come and go. In Ops Chiefs Nicastro and Canzoneri just make sure that the critical stations are manned. In Weapons Chiefs Bath and Holtsnider do the same.

In Engineering, where they stand six on and six off and most of the stations must be continuously manned, life is more structured.

From Passage At Arms by Glen Cook (1985)

A chime sounds, a bell-like tone. (First officer) Korie's gaze strays automatically to the clock —abruptly he checks himself. (It isn't my relief that's coming.) The thought echoes rudely in his mind.

The bridge of the starcruiser is a bowl-shaped room. The wide door at the rear of it slides open to admit four low-voiced crewmen. They cut off their talk, move quickly into the room, and separate.

Two rows of gray-blue consoles circle the bridge, the outer row surrounding the room on a wide raised ledge, the other just inside and below. Despite the spaciousness of the room's original measurements, the additional consoles and equipment that have since been added force a cramped feeling within.

Brushing past their shipmates, two of the men move around to the front of the ledge, called the horseshoe. They tap two others and step into their places at the controls. The other relief crewmen step down into the circle of consoles in the center, a lowered area called the pit. They too tap two men. Dropping easily into the quickly vacated couches, the new men settle into the routine with a familiarity bred of experience.

The men going off watch exit just as quickly, and once more the bridge is still. The crew are sullen figures in the darkened room, sometimes silhouetted against the glare of a screen.

One man —a small man on the left side of the horseshoe —is not still at his post. He glances around the bridge nervously, looks to the Command and Control Seat just above the rear of the pit.

Working up his courage, the man steps forward. "Sir?"

Korie peers into the darkness. "Yes?"

"Uh, sir. . . my relief —he hasn't shown up yet."

"Who's your relief, Harris?"

"Wolfe, sir."

"Wolfe?" Korie frowns. He rubs absentmindedly at his nose.

Harris nods. "Yes, sir."

Korie sighs to himself, a sound of quiet exasperation, directed as much at Harris as at the absent Wolfe. "Well.. . stay at your post until he gets here."

"Yes, sir." Resignedly, Harris turns back to his waiting board.

At the same time, the door at the rear of the bridge slides open with a whoosh. Red-faced and panting heavily, a short, straw-colored crewman rushes in, still buttoning the flap of his tunic.

Korie swivels to face him. "Wolfe?" he demands. He touches the chair arm, throwing a splash of light at the man.

Wolfe hesitates, caught in the sudden glare. "Yes, sir. .. ? Uh, I'm sorry I'm late coming on watch, sir."

"You're sorry. . . ?"

"Yes, sir."

"Oh." The first officer pauses. "Well, then I guess that makes everything all right."

Wolfe smiles nervously, but the sweat is beaded on his fore head. He starts to move to his post.

"Did you hear that, Harris?" Korie calls abruptly. "Wolfe said he was sorry...."

Again Wolfe hesitates. He looks nervously from one to the other.

"Harris?" Korie calls again. "Did you hear that?"

"Uh, yes, sir." The answer is mumbled; the man is hidden in shadow.

"And that makes everything all right, doesn't it, Harris?" Korie's eyes remain fixed on Wolfe.

"Uh, yes, sir," Harris answers. "I guess it does —if you say so —"

The first officer smiles thinly. "I guess it does then." His voice goes suddenly hard. "In fact, Mr. Harris, Mr. Wolfe is so sorry that he says he's going to take over your next five watches for you. In addition to his own. Isn't that good of him?"


"Shut up, Wolfe!"

"Uh, sir —" insists Harris. "You don't have to do that—"

"You're right, Harris. I don't have to —Wolfe does."

"Sir!" Wolfe protests again.

"I don't want to hear it."

"But, sir, I —"

"Wolfe. . .!" says Korie warningly. "You are now ten minutes late in getting to your post. Are you trying for twenty?" He cuts off the spotlight, darkening the bridge back to Condition Red, and swivels forward.

Wolfe stares at the first officer's back for a moment, then mutters a nearly inaudible, "Yes, sir. . .!" He steps across the horse shoe and ritually taps Harris's shoulder.

From Yesterday's Children by David Gerrold (1972)
Discovery's Schedule
0100Bowman goes to sleep
Poole inspects ship
0400Poole reports to Mission Control
0600Bowman awakes, breakfast
0700Bowman relieves Poole
Bowman checks instruments
Start Poole's 6 hr off-duty
1000Bowman study period
1200Bowman's lunch, Poole's dinner
1300Bowman inspects ship
Poole goes to sleep
1600Bowman reports to Mission Control
1800Poole awakes, breakfast
1900Poole relieves Bowman
Poole checks instruments
Start Bowman's 6 hr off-duty
2000Bowman dinner, Poole lunch
2200Poole study period

The day-by-day running of the ship had been planned with great care, and — theoretically at least — Bowman and Poole knew what they would be doing at every moment of the twenty-four hours. They operated on a twelve-hours-on, twelve-hours-off basis, taking charge alternately, and never being both asleep at the same time. The officer on duty remained on the Control Deck, while his deputy saw to the general housekeeping, inspected the ship, coped with the odd jobs that constantly arose, or relaxed in his cubicle.

Bowman’s day began at 0600, ship’s time — the Universal Ephemeris Time of the astronomers.

His first official act of the day would be to advance the Master Hibernation Timer twelve hours. If this operation was missed twice in a row, Hal would assume that both he and Poole had been incapacitated, and would take the necessary emergency action.

Bowman would attend to his toilet, and do his isometric exercises, before settling down to breakfast and the morning’s radio-fax edition of the World Times.

At 0700 he would officially relieve Poole on the Control Deck, bringing him a squeeze-tube of coffee from the kitchen. If — as was usually the case — there was nothing to report and no action to be taken, he would settle down to check all the instrument readings, and would run through a series of tests designed to spot possible malfunctions. By 1000 this would be finished, and he would start on a study period.

So for two hours, from 1000 to 1200, Bowman would engage in a dialogue with an electronic tutor, checking his general knowledge or absorbing material specific to this mission. He would prowl endlessly over ship’s plans, circuit diagrams, and voyage profiles, or would try to assimilate all that was known about Jupiter, Saturn, and their far-ranging families of moons.

At midday, he would retire to the galley and leave the ship to Hal while he prepared his lunch. Even here, he was still fully in touch with events, for the tiny lounge-cum-dining room contained a duplicate of the Situation Display Panel, and Hal could call him at a moment’s notice. Poole would join him for this meal, before retiring for his six-hour sleep period, and usually they would watch one of the regular TV programs beamed to them from Earth.

After lunch, from 1300 to 1600 Bowman would make a slow and careful tour of the ship — or such part of it as was accessible. Discovery measured almost four hundred feet from end to end, but the little universe occupied by her crew lay entirely inside the forty-foot sphere of the pressure hull.

By 1600, he would have finished his inspection, and would make a detailed verbal report to Mission Control, talking until the acknowledgment started to come in. Then he would switch off his own transmitter, listen to what Earth had to say, and send back his reply to any queries. At 1800 hours, Poole would awaken, and he would hand over command.

He would then have six off-duty hours, to use as he pleased. Sometimes he would continue his studies, or listen to music, or look at movies. Much of the time he would wander at will through the ship’s inexhaustible electronic library.

The last hours of Bowman’s day were devoted to general cleaning up and odd jobs, followed by dinner at 2000 — again with Poole. Then there would be an hour during which he would make or receive any personal call from Earth.

Just before he signed off Bowman would make his final report, and check that Hal had transmitted all the instrumentation tapes for the day’s run. Then, if he felt like it, he would spend a couple of hours either reading or looking at a movie; and at midnight he would go to sleep — usually without any help from electronarcosis. Poole’s program was a mirror image of his own, and the two schedules dovetailed together without friction.

From 2001 A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (1968)

Chain of Command

On spacecraft in general, and military spacecraft in particular, there will be a strict "chain of command." People with no management or military experience may not see the point behind a chain of command, but if such a person is suddenly given the task of managing a project (even a high-school bake sale) they will suddenly discover why it is vital. Attempting to run a spacecraft by a democracy or other laissez-faire system will probably result in the destruction of the spacecraft and the death of all the crew. Space is a far too deadly environment and spacecraft are far too full of dangerous equipment to leave things to chance.

We would be "temporary third lieutenants" - a rank as necessary as feet on a fish, wedged into the hairline between fleet sergeants and real officers. It is as low as you can get and still be called an "officer." If anybody ever saluted a third lieutenant, the light must have been bad.

"Your commission reads 'third lieutenant,' " he went on, "but your pay stays the same, you continue to be addressed as 'Mister,' the only change in uniform is a shoulder pip even smaller than cadet insignia. You continue under instruction since it has not yet been settled that you are fit to be officers." The Colonel smiled. "So why call you a 'third lieutenant'?"

I had wondered about that. Why this whoopty-do of "commissions" that weren't real commissions? Of course I knew the textbook answer.

"Mr. Byrd?" the Commandant said.

"Uh . . . to place us in the line of command, sir."

"Exactly!" Colonel glided to a T. O. on one wall. It was the usual pyramid, with chain of command defined all the way down. "Look at this - " He pointed to a box connected to his own by a horizontal line; it read: ASSISTANT TO COMMANDANT (Miss Kendrick).

"Gentlemen," he went on, "I would have trouble running this place without Miss Kendrick. Her head is a rapid-access file to everything that happens around here." He touched a control on his chair and spoke to the air. "Miss Kendrick, what mark did Cadet Byrd receive in military law last term?"

Her answer came back at once: "Ninety-three per cent, Commandant."

"Thank you." He continued, "You see? I sign anything if Miss Kendrick has initialed it. I would hate to have an investigating committee find out how often she signs my name and I don't even see it. Tell me, Mr. Byrd . . . if I drop dead, does Miss Kendrick carry on to keep things moving?"

"Why, uh - " Birdie looked puzzled. "I suppose, with routine matters, she would do what was necess - "

"She wouldn't do a blessed thing!" the Colonel thundered. "Until Colonel Chauncey told her what to do - his way. She is a very smart woman and understands what you apparently do not, namely, that she is not in the line of command and has no authority." He went on, " 'Line of command' isn't just a phrase; it's as real as a slap in the face. If I ordered you to combat as a cadet the most you could do would be to pass along somebody else's orders. If your platoon leader bought it and you then gave an order to a private - a good order, sensible and wise - you would be wrong and he would be just as wrong if he obeyed it. Because a cadet cannot be in the line of command. A cadet has no military existence, no rank, and is not a soldier. He is a student who will become a soldier - either an officer, or at his formal rank."

From STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert Heinlein (1959)

Two Marines from Alexandria’s fifty-man contingent flanked the main entrance hatch into the ballroom when the three officers arrived. The Marines snapped to attention and saluted. Drake returned their salutes, and then stepped over the raised coaming into the ballroom.

The large compartment had been configured as an auditorium, with rows of seats arrayed in front of a raised dias and podium. As Drake stepped over the threshold, there was a cry of "Ten-hut!" from one of the Marines. Scattered figures, all in uniform, jumped to their feet with ramrod straight spines and eyes facing front. An occasional civilian figure also stood, although in a much more relaxed manner. Most of the hundred-plus occupants of the compartment merely glanced up, and then went back to their individual discussions.

Drake strode down the aisle at the side of the compartment, mounted the dias, and moved to the podium. While waiting for the noise to subside, he let his gaze sweep across the compartment. ... Professor Planovich was also seated in the second row, three seats to the right of Aster. Drake recognized a dozen other members of the scientific staff, including several women. Standing toward the back of the crowd were the captains and executive officers of the cryogen tankers, as well as several scout and landing boat pilots from Discovery and City of Alexandria.

Drake ordered those standing to be seated. The military personnel sat down, and the buzz of conversation began to slowly subside. Drake waited until the crowd had grown silent before beginning to speak:

"Thank you for coming, ladies and gentlemen. I asked Captain Fallan to call this meeting in order to get a few things straight before we leave orbit for the deep black. First of all, I would like all those who did not stand when I entered the compartment to please do so now."

There was a renewal of the crowd noises and no one moved for a second. Then, slowly, hesitantly, the powerful of Alta began to climb to their feet. First one, then two, then small groups, until finally, the scene was exactly reversed from that of a minute earlier.

"For the next several months, you will all be living and working aboard this ship. As I am sure you have noticed already, we are too many people crammed into too little space, and there is little opportunity for incompatible personalities to get away from each other. This is quite normal, and we spacers long ago developed a code of conduct to minimize the stresses of shipboard life. The code is based on three principles: respect for one’s fellows, common courtesy, and the fact that a ship in space is no democracy.

"One of the most basic principles of this code involves the respect given a commanding officer aboard ship. For many of the same reasons that one stands when a judge enters a courtroom, so too should you stand when a captain enters a compartment. The act is intended to show your respect for the position rather than for the man who fills it. Since each of you now standing has chosen to ignore this simple courtesy, you will pay for the oversight by reporting to Captain Fallan immediately after we leave orbit. He will assign you to forty hours of ship’s maintenance as a penalty.

There were several seconds of shocked silence, followed by an explosion of protests. Drake let the noise wash over him, making no move to stop it. Eventually, all was quiet again.

"I take it from your reaction that you think I’m being overly harsh," he said.

"Damned right!" someone yelled from the back row.

"You should be thankful to get off so easily. True, I could have ignored the unintentional insult you gave me. I could have explained why we have these quaint customs aboard ship, and asked you to humor us by complying with them. I could have, but I didn’t. In an emergency, your lives may well depend on your immediate, unquestioning obedience to my orders, or those of Captain Fallan. Since such obedience does not come naturally to anyone, I have chosen to educate you in a way that you will remember."

"What if we refuse to knuckle under?" one white haired man in the fifth row asked.

"Your name, sir?"

"Greg. Tobias Greg, Labor Council Chartered Representative."

"Well, Mr. Greg. My response to willful disobedience of orders depends on the stage of the mission we are in at the time. For instance, if you are refusing my order at this moment, I will have the Marines put you bodily onto one of the supply shuttles and have you returned to Alta. Should your refusal come after we’ve left orbit, however, I just may have you shot as am example to others."

Several Adam’s apples bobbed up and down as their owners swallowed hard, but no one spoke up. Drake continued: "Now, then, enough of this. Shall we get on with the real reason for this assembly? Commander Marston will read you the expedition orders."

From ANTARES DAWN by Michael McCollum (1998)

Area of Responsibilities

In other SF, one will find Captains, Pilots, Owners-Aboard, Astrogators, Doctors/Medics, Engineers (propulsion engineers are sometimes called "Jetmen"), sensor officers/radarmen, Cargo-masters (also in charge with negotiating trades), communications-techs, turret-gunners, life-support techs, marines (space-ines?, Espatiers?), cooks (could be a rotating job), pursers, and sometimes a ship's cat (to catch those pesky alien rats). Maybe a science officer if you have one of those unvirile exploration ships.

In Andre Norton's Solar Queen novels, she mentions that the ship's cat is trained to present the carcasses of the vermin they kill to the captain. This allows the captain to be aware of what sort of alien rats and cockroaches infested the ship at last planet-fall. In his short story "Feathered Friend", Arthur C. Clarke remembers the history of mining, and suggests that a pet canary might be a cheap back-up for an atmosphere monitor. If the bird keels over, grab an oxygen mask and check the life support, pronto!

Space engineers may be faced with the daunting task of designing a microgravity cat litterbox that a cat will actually use. Since there do exist some modern-day cats that have been successfully toilet-trained, it is not impossible to imagine a cat trained to use one of those free-fall suction toilets such as are used on the Space Shuttle.

Of course if this is a tramp freighter, one person might have to do several jobs at once (wear several "hats"). Often the Captain, the Pilot, and the Astrogator are the same person. Or if things are really tight on the tramp, some of the jobs might be omitted (e.g., don't carry a doctor and hope nobody gets sick/injured and similar insanely dangerous decisions).

For purposes of comparison, here is a list of the crew complement of a World War II LST ship. Interesting jobs you will note are Shipfitter, Motor Machinist and Fireman. The LST has seven officers and 104 enlisted men.

Christopher Weuve has a good description of life on a US Naval vessel here.


If the spacecraft has a large enough crew, there will be a First Officer. Generally the Captain's job has to do with things external to the spacecraft (where the ship is going, what it does when it gets there, etc.) while the First Officer's job has to do with things internal to the ship (ensuring that the crew can and will do their jobs, keeping the ship supplied and in good repair, etc.) The first officer on a small ship is responsible for creating the "watchbill" for all crew members. On a larger ship, the department heads will be responsible for creating the watchbill for their department.

The captain barely paused before giving her answer. Floyd had often admired Tanya Orlova's decisiveness, and had once told her so. In a rare flash of humour, she had replied: 'Woody, a commander can be wrong, but never uncertain.'

From 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke (1982)


Pilots and helmsmen direct the spacecraft. Pilots might be rated according to the deltaV levels, ship classes, and trajectories that they are qualified to handle. Master Pilots are rated for any and all. The captain give the astrogator the destination. The astrogator plots the course, tells the pilot where to go, and notifies the pilot of navigational hazards. The doctors and medics heal the crew.


The bulk of the engineer's time is taken up by maintenance. Every single piece of equipment and installation has its own maintenance schedule, and it must be inspected, cleaned, serviced, or replaced as per schedule. Sometimes non-engineer crewmembers are assigned some maintenance tasks. A basic preventative maintenance task is simple cleaning. Not only does dirt cause malfunctions, but it also lowers morale.

"Captain Suvuk," Scotty said, sounding very distressed, "wi' all due respects, that's extraordinarily dangerous for two ships of the same model, let alone ones with different engine specs-- "

"-- which we now have," Suvuk said. "Granted, Mr. Scott, but we cannot leave Bloodwing behind, either. Do you wish to speak to your Captain?"

"Not now," Scotty said, "but I will later... Implementing, sir. Scott out."

Suvuk looked at [Captain Kirk] with calm approval. "Sir, have you ever noticed that while we run our ships, our engineers own them?..."

From My Enemy, My Ally by Diane Duane (1990)

Damage Control

The other critical task of the engineers is damage control, although all crew members have some basic DC training. The focus is on fire-suppression, controlling decompression, and keeping the ship operational. The idea is to stabilize the damage as quick as possible until time allows more permanent repairs.

Belowdecks during a damage control operation the chain of command may shift. The Damage Control Officer (DCO, often but not always the chief engineer) has the authority to yank personnel from whatever department is needed in order to keep the ship operational. The DC officer creates damage control parties, each of which is responsible for a particular section of the spacecraft. The parties get their orders from Damage Control Central (DDC) which is a watch center generally in the hardest-to-damage section of the ship. The parties give progress reports to the DCO so the ship's status can be tracked. The parties utilize the damage control lockers in their assigned section. The crewperson in charge of each party generally is well trained in shipbuilding, firefighting, and team management.

Other Official

Sensor officers are the spacecraft's eyes. Cargo-masters deal in cargo and trading. Quartermasters are in charge of ship's stores, and are generally stuck with all the odd jobs that don't fit in any other jurisdiction (e.g., laundry).

Communication techs are the ship's ears and mouth. They direct incoming messages to the proper departments and send outgoing messages in the proper format to the proper channels. Communication noise must be monitored and auxiliary channels used if required. All messages must be logged. Distress signals are sent to the watch officer, but never responded to without authorization. Responding binds the ship to render assistance, a decision reserved for the captain. The communication tech must also maintain the ship's transponder, which broadcasts the ship's ID. The tech may also be responsible for encrypted communications, using the proper keys to encrypt and decrypt, and destroying the code book if the ship is captured by a hostile power.

If the ship is privately owned, the owner might be along for the trip as the "owner-aboard". If the owner is not aboard, they will sometimes appoint a "ship's husband". This is a crewmember who represents the owner, and who manages its expenses and receipts.


There are also "unofficial" jobs onboard. These are colorful characters often found among the enlisted men. Preacher, Loan Shark, Moonshiner, Peddler (the man who always has something to sell, and who can get you anything you want), Bookmaker (place your bets, gentlemen...), Thief, Coward, and Gritch. The latter is the man everyone loves to hate, and the most important character in any small, closed social system.


On whussy exploration ships, in addition to a large number of specialist scientists drawn from various fields, it might be advisable to add a researcher who's job title is "Synthesist". This is a person who can correlate apparently unrelated facts from different areas of science. For example: a Synthesist might notice that a new statistical technique developed by life insurance adjustors to deal with populations of people could be used by astronomers doing surveys of populations of stars. Ordinarily the astronomers would never learn about this technique since they have no area of overlap with life insurance science, but the Synthesist could make that correlation.

There were Synthesists in John Brunner's STAND ON ZANZIBAR, Synthesists in James Hogan's Inherit The Stars, "Nexialists" in A. E. van Vogt's VOYAGE OF THE SPACE BEAGLE, and members of the Mnemonic Service in Isaac Asimov's "Sucker Bait."

"Mnemonic Service," said Sheffield, patiently. "Emm-enneee- emm-oh-enn-eye-see Service. You don't pronounce the first emm. It's from a Greek word meaning memory."

The captain's eyes narrowed. "He remembers things?"

"Correct, captain. Look, in a way this is my fault. I should have briefed you on this. I would have, too, if the boy hadn't gotten so sick right after the take-off. It drove most other matters out of my mind. Besides, it didn't occur to me that he might be interested in the workings of the ship itself. Space knows why not. He should be interested in everything."

"He should, eh?" The captain looked at the timepiece on the wall. "Brief me now, eh? But no fancy words. Not many of any other kind, either. Time limited."

"It won't take long, I assure you. Now you're a space-going man, captain. How many inhabited worlds would you say there were in the Confederation?"

"Eighty thousand," said the captain, promptly.

"Eighty-three thousand two hundred," said Sheffield. "What do you suppose it takes to run a political organization that size?"

Again the captain did not hesitate. "Computers," he said.

"All right. There's Earth, where half the population works for the government and does nothing but compute and there are computing subcenters on every other world. And even so data gets lost. Every world knows something no other world knows-almost every man. Look at our little group. Vernadsky doesn't know any biology and I don't know enough chemistry to stay alive. There's not one of us can pilot the simplest spacecruiser, except for Fawkes. So we work together, each one supplying the knowledge the others lack.

"Only there's a catch. Not one of us knows exactly which of our own data is meaningful to the other under a given set of circumstances. We can't sit and spout everything we know. So we guess, and sometimes we don't guess right. Two facts, A and B, can go together beautifully sometimes. So Person A, who knows Fact A, says to Person B, who knows Fact B, 'Why didn't you tell me this ten years ago?' and Person B answers, 'I didn't think it was important,' or 'I thought everyone knew that.'"

The captain said, "That's what computers are for."

Sheffield said, "Computers are limited, captain. They have to be asked questions. What's more the questions have to be the kind that can be put into a limited number of symbols. What's more computers are very literal minded. They answer exactly what you ask and not what you have in mind. Sometimes it never occurs to anyone to ask just the right question or feed the computer just the right symbols, and when that happens the computer doesn't volunteer information.

"What we need . . . what all mankind needs . . . is a computer that is nonmechanical; a computer with imagination. There's one like that, captain." The psychologist tapped his temple. "In everyone, captain."

"Maybe," grunted the captain, "but I'll stick to the usual, eh? Kind you punch a button."

"Are you sure? Machines don't have hunches. Did you ever have a hunch?"

"Is this on the point?" The captain looked at the timepiece again.

Sheffield said, "Somewhere inside the human brain is a record of every datum that has impinged upon it. Very little of it is consciously remembered, but all of it is there, and a small association can bring an individual datum back without a person's knowing where it comes from. So you get a 'hunch' or a 'feeling.' Some people are better at it than others. And some can be trained. Some are almost perfect, like Mark Annuncio and a hundred like him. Some day, I hope, there'll be a billion like him, and we'll really have a Mnemonic Service.

"All their lives," Sheffield went on, "they do nothing but read, look, and listen. And train to do that better and more efficiently. It doesn't matter what data they collect. It doesn't have to have obvious sense or obvious significance. It doesn't matter if any man in the Service wants to spend a week going over the records of the space-polo teams of the Canopus Sector for the last century. Any datum may be useful some day. That's the fundamental axiom.

"Every once in a while, one of the Service may correlate across a gap no machine could possibly manage. The machine would fail because no one machine is likely to possess those two pieces of thoroughly unconnected information; or else, if the machine does have it, no man would be insane enough to ask the right question. One good correlation out of the Service can pay for all the money appropriated for it in ten years or more."

From "Sucker Bait" by Isaac Asimov (1954)

There was one talent Donald Hogan did possess which the majority of people didn't: the gift of making right guesses. Some mechanism at the back of his mind seemed ceaselessly to be shifting around factors from the surrounding world, hunting for patterns in them, and when such a pattern arose a silent bell would ring inside his skull.

Factors: Washington, the absence of the Dean, the offer of a salary competitive with what he could hope to earn in industry, but for studying, not for working ... There were people, extremely top people, whom specialists tended to refer to disparagingly as dilettanti but who dignified themselves with the title "synthesist", and who spent their entire working lives doing nothing but making cross-references from one enclosed corner of research to another. It seemed like too much to hope for, coming on top of his expectation, moments back, that his grant was to be discontinued. He had to put his hands together to stop them trembling.

"You're talking about synthesis, aren't you?"

"Yes, I'm from the Dilettante Dept—or more officially, from the Office of Research Co-ordination. But I doubt if you have in mind exactly what I'm going to propose. I've seen the graphs of your scholastic career, and I get the impression that you could make yourself into a synthesist if you wanted to badly enough, with or without a doctorate." Dr. Foden leaned back in her chair.

"So the fact that you're still here—griping, but putting up with things—makes me suspect you don't want to badly enough. It'll take a good fat bribe to make you opt for it I think nonetheless you may be honest enough to stay bribed. Tell me, given the chance, what would you do to round out your education?"

Donald stammered over his answer, turning crimson at his own inability to utter crisp, decisive plans. "Well—uh—I guess ... History, particularly recent history; nobody's taught me about anything nearer to home than World War II without loading it full of biased dreck. All the fields which touch on my own, like crystallography and ecology. Not omitting human ecology. And to document that I'd like to delve into the written record of our species, which is now about eight thousand years deep. I ought to learn at least one non-Indo-European language. Then—"

"Stop. You've defined an area of knowledge greater than an individual can cover in a lifetime."

"Not true!" Donald was gathering confidence by the moment. "Of course you can't if you've been taught the way I have, on the basis of memorising facts, but what one ought to learn is how to extract patterns! You don't bother to memorise the literature—you learn to read and keep a shelf of books. You don't memorise log and sine tables; you buy a slide-rule or learn to punch a public computer!" A helpless gesture. "You don't have to know everything. You simply need to know where to find it when necessary.''

Dr. Foden was nodding. "You seem to have the right basic attitude," she acknowledged. "However, I must put on my Mephistopheles hat at this point and explain the conditions that attach to the offer I'm making. First, you'd be required to read and write fluent Yatakangi."

Donald blanched slightly. A friend of his had once started on that language and switched to Mandarin Chinese as an easier alternative. However ...

He shrugged. "I'd be willing to shoot for that," he said.

"And the rest of it I can't tell you until you've been to Washington with me."

Where a man called Colonel—Donald was not told if he had a name of his own—said, "Raise your right hand and repeat after me: 'I Donald Orville Hogan ... do solemnly declare and attest...'"

Donald sighed. Back then, it had seemed like the fulfilment of his wildest dreams. Five mornings a week doing nothing but read, under no compulsion to produce any kind of results—merely requested to mention by mail any association or connection he spotted which he had reason to believe might prove helpful to somebody: advise an astronomer that a market research organisation had a new statistical sampling technique, for instance, or suggest that an entomologist be informed about a new air-pollution problem. It sounded like paradise, especially since his employers not only did not care what he did with the rest of his time but suggested he make his experience as varied as possible to keep himself alert.

From Stand On Zanzibar by John Brunner (1968)

"Folks, we have got something! That's the sixth-order pattern, and thought is in that level! Those were thoughts - Shiro's thoughts."


"How did you work it out?" asked Crane. "You said, yourself, that it might well take lifetimes of research."

"It would, ordinarily. Partly a hunch, partly dumb luck, but mostly a combination of two brains that upon Norlamin would ordinarily never touch the same subject anywhere. Rovol, who knows everything there is to be known about rays, and Drasnik, probably the greatest authority upon the mind that ever lived, both gave me a good share of their knowledge; and the combination turned out to be hot stuff, particularly in connection with this fifth-order keyboard.


"Oh, wonderful-wonderful!" exclaimed Rovol in ecstasy, his transcendental imperturbability broken at last. "Think of it! Our knowledge extended one whole order farther in each direction, both into the small and into the large. Magnificent! And by one brain, and that of a youth. Extraordinary! And we may now traverse universal space in ordinary time, because that brain has harnessed the practically infinite power of cosmic radiation, a power which exhausted the store of uranium carried by Skylark Three in forty hours. Phenomenal! Stupendous!"

"But do not forget that the brain of that youth is a composite of many," said Fodan thoughtfully, "and that in it, among others, were yours and Drasnik's. Seaton himself ascribes to that peculiar combination his successful solution of the problem of the sixth order. You know, of course, that I am in no sense belittling the native power of that brain. I am merely suggesting that perhaps other noteworthy discoveries may be made by superimposing brains in other, but equally widely divergent, fields of thought."

From The Skylark of Valeron by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1949)

The Mission Control Model

In a post to his always insightful blog Rocketpunk Manifesto, Rick Robinson points out how cruel reality has stolen the romance from space crews in general and astrogation in particular. In the classic Tom Corbett Space Cadet books, spacecraft had a pilot, an engineer, and an astrogator for crew. In Robert Heinlein's immortal novel Starman Jones, in the days before a ship reached the FTL jump point, the astrogators worked 24 hours a day, leafing through books of ten place logarithms until the pages fell out and working slide rules until they got hot enough to catch on fire. The only computers they had were hulking brutes that only accepted numeric input in binary via flipping toggle switches on the panel. Certainly nothing resembling a GUI interface with a mouse and keyboard.

But this seems so quaint now. On the high seas, it is considered passé to shoot the sun with a sextant and sweat over a chart with a pair of dividers. Instead you turn on your GPS unit and use your favorite navigation software on your laptop. Unless you are writing a hard-core rocketpunk SF novel, it will be odd to find a slide rule on a starship.

The same goes for most other jobs: much labor will be replaced by automation and computerization.

In Larry Niven's The Borderland of Sol, he postulates a technobabble gizmo called a "mass sensor" which is a "psionic" device. It warns of gravity fields which will destroy starships using Niven's FTL drive. The psionic device can only be watched by a living being, a computer cannot use it for some silly hand-waving reason or other. Niven invented it because he wanted to write about human starship pilots, not write about starships that flew themselves under computer control. Burnside's Zeroth Law, you know.

Of course I personally would be thrilled to have some sort of hand-waved FTL drive that has the side effect of forcing the use of slide rules. I keep trying to come up with one, but so far none my inventions has been free of unwanted side effects. It's hard to think of something that will kill a computer but not the crew.

Rick's solution is brilliant. He notes that current NASA space probes are not navigated by on-board computers. They are navigated by Mission Control. The idea is that the ship is not run by crew members doing things manually. The ship is run by system managers who oversee and command the computers who directly run the ship. This is not quite as nostalgic as the "bomber crew" model of spacecraft crews, but it is far better than a ship with a single button on the control panel labeled "Do Mission".

(note: if you want the precise details of every single control panel in Mission Control, you can find the details here)

Raymond McVay of Blue Max Studios took this idea and ran with it. In a series of blog posts here, here, and here he actually did some research on NASA's mission control with an eye to adapting it to spacecraft crews.

Mission Commander (MCOM)This is the overall director of the entire operation, the big boss. If there are several spacecraft in a task force, there will only be one MCOM as task force commander, aboard the flagship. In other words, not all spacecraft will have an MCOM on board.
Flight Commander (Flight)This is the director of the spacecraft in particular. They supervise all aspects of the ship's preparedness and abilty to perform the mission given by MCOM. This would be the ship's "captain".
Integrated Communications Officer (INCO)This is the supervisor of all exterior and interior communications. They are the bridge between all the spacecraft's computer networks, the ship's personnel, MCOM and Flight. This is partially the equivalent of a Naval vessel's executive officer. INCO is also in charge of administrative details and discipline among the other departments.
Flight Engineer (Chief)The supervisor in charge of all engineering systems. If this is a huge spacecraft or space station, this job might be split into several Flight Engineer positions: power, propulsion, maintenance, etc.
Guidance Procedures Officer (GPO or Guidance)They monitor the navigation of the spacecraft, ensuring that the guidance control software is operating properly, and keeping an eye out for hostile electronic warfare.
Guidance, Navigation and Control Systems Engineer (SYS or System)They are responsible for teh guidance, navigation, and control system hardware. This includes flight computers, radar, lidar, flir sensors, attitude jets, and all the connections. They direct repair robots perform spot inspections.
Spacecraft Communications (SCOM)The communicator between the spacecraft and other ships or stations.
ENGINEERING (subordinate to COMMAND)
Propulsion Engineer (Prop)Officer in charge of the entire conventional propulsion system, from propellant to exhaust nozzle. They also keep track of remaining delta V capacity.
Drive Engineer (Drive)Responsible for hand-waving FTL star drive, heat radiators and maintenance on weapons systems.
Electrical Engineer (EE)Responsible for power plant, power plant fuel supply, and electrical systems. They are also responsible for monitoring radiation if the power plant or propulsion system emits any.
LIFE SUPPORT (subordinate to COMMAND)
Environmental Consumables Manager (ECM)This officer ensures that there is enough food, water, heat, and breathing mix to keep the crew alive. Everything from food storage to air vents to water faucets to air scrubbers.
Closed-Ecology Life-Support Systems (CELSS or "Cells")Responsible for the hydroponics and algae tanks, if the ship is equipped with such.
Flight Surgeon (Doc)Medical officer. They deal with disease, injury, ship cleanliness, and radiation.
PAYLOAD (subordinate to COMMAND)
Payload Officer (PLO/Payload)They are actually the weapon officer in charge of firing weapons at hostiles.
Payload Deployment and Retrieval Officer (PDRO or "Padro")In charge of loading and unloading cargo. Robots do all the work. Also in charge of ensuring that the cargo is stored in a balanced manner so the spacecraft does not fall off it's tail.
Maintenance, Mechanical Arms, and Crew Systems Officer (MMACS)Officer oversees the maintenance of all the spacecraft's robots, robotic arms, and associated systems.

Naturally on smaller spacecraft some officers will be responsible for several positions (they will wear more than one "hat"), and some positions will have no human officers.

On larger spacecraft, Raymond thinks that they will have two full mission control teams on board for redundancy. This means six staffers per department instead of three, no officer will wear more than one hat, and all positions will be filled. Raymond figures that if the ship is in a non-combat situation, you'll only need one crew member per department on duty at any given time. This means the normal crew per watch is five. All staffers will be qualified to stand watch for their entire department under normal operations. With low ranking crew members, their main job will be deciding whether to wake up their superior to deal with any sudden situations.

With a full set of 16 filled staff positions, this will boil down to a watch bill with 6 four-hour shifts. Each member of the Command Department functions as Flight Director for their Watch, though only the two Flight Commanders are referred to as "Flight". The INCO is the de facto Executive/1st Officer of a spacecraft, and the Chief is the de facto 2nd Officer. The Watch bill is staggared as well, with Flight 1 directing the first Watch and Flight 2 directing the 4th.

Outside of their four-hour watch, each crew has four to eight hours of specialty work. This boils down to supervising teams of robots and performing spot inspections.

The most important part of a crew member's job — indeed, the entire reason for having an organic crew at all — is to spot potential problems before they happen. Space is an uncaring mistress, many problems are lethal and impossible to fix by the time they actually occur. The two Flights have the task of not only handling the details of their respective commands but also being on the planning staff of the MCOM, along with the Flight Commanders of any auxiliary craft and the commanders of the Espatier attachments.

The watchbill is different under non-normal high-priority combat conditions. Combat ships be designed with two separate Flight Control Rooms (FCR) spaced widely apart so that a lucky hostile laser strike does not wipe them both out with one bolt (in Star Trek the second room is called the Auxiliary Control Center). During combat both FCRs will be fulled crewed. The FCR crewed by Flight 1 (and MCOM 1 if present) will be the primary control room, Flight 2 and the deputy MCOM will be in the secondary control room. The secondary control will be on standby, ready to immediately assume control if the primary control room is quote "lost" unquote. "Lost" means anything from "the communication lines were cut" to "the room and everbody in it was just vaporized by a casaba howitzer."

During non-combat periods the two control rooms will conduct regular wargames against each other to keep the teams honed and in fighting trim. And of course the MCOMs and Flights will spring drills and suprise inspections on the rest of the crew to keep them on their toes.

Robert Davidoff said:

Something that occurs to me: this is all well and good for a combat ship operating as part of a fleet, but what about cruising stations and a proper watch bill? Flight here appears to have no backup, which means that there will be time when Flight is asleep. In Mission Control, this is not allowed: there are usually at least 3 Flight Directors who trade shifts, and in fact full teams of controllers to do the same at all critical stations. Perhaps with your settings level of computers, not every station is required full-time, with its specific monitoring subsumed into the section lead's duties tempororily or something, but the top of the structure needs a full watch bill, I think.

Three is best, enough for a standard watch bill, and suggests the CO, the XO, and a third officer, possibly selected from the wardroom at the CO's discretion subject to some standards — Flight needs some proficiency on every major area to know accurately what his/her controllers are recommending, and so that if he/she has to over-rule a controller's recommendations, it's an informed decision. Third Flight would be a good learning spot for potential XOs and COs — responsibility, but the decision in the most serious cases would be to wake the CO and XO for a consult.

Robert Davidoff

Control on a Budget

As previously mentioned, things are different on a small spacecraft with limited crew. Please note that Raymond has added an external constraint. On the one hand he wants something logical and plausible. On the other hand he is using this to design a role playing game, where the average number of players is about five but occasionally an even lower number (down to one). This somewhat arbitrary limit is also useful for SF authors in order to keep the number of characters down to a manageable level. Of course in reality each additional crew member does add a sizeable mass-penalty with the body mass and the mass of the consumables they will require. So reality also has motivation to make the number of crew members as small as possible, in order to maximize the amount of mass devoted to payload. Emphasis on the "pay", as in "units of stuff that our clients will pay us money for delivering with our spacecraft."

Raymond examined the crew positions on NASA's Space Shuttle to get an idea of what was required. This is what he came up with:

Flight Commander (FCOM)The Skipper, and maybe emergency pilot. Not to be confused with "Flight" on a spacecraft carrying smaller spacecraft.
Guidance Procedures Officer (Guidance)Primary pilot. Monitors flight computers, does incidental manual maneuvering, and lands the spacecraft during ionization blackout. Also electronic warfare, if this is a military spacecraft.
Flight Engineer (Booster/Chief/Drive)In charge of maintenance, electrical systems, propulsion, and power reactors. Supervises large teams of maintenance drones and robots.
Payload Officer (PLO)In charge of cargo (including proper weight distribution) and weapon systems.
Life-Support Officer (LSO)In charge of consumables, breathing mix, CELSS, toilets, et al. Also the Medic.

The small spacecraft watchbill will have 3 eight-hour Watches staffed by Guidance, PLO and Chief in rotation. Neither the FCOM nor the LSO stand watches; the FCOM is too busy being in charge and the LSO is not qualified.

Example Crews

Andre Norton

In Andre Norton's THE SARGASSO OF SPACE, a small Free Trader class starship has twelve crew members. Control Deck: Captain-Pilot, Astrogator (badge: Chart) second in command, Apprentice astrogator, Com-Tech (badge: Lightning bolt) communications officer. Engine Deck: Chief Engineer (badge: Cog wheel), two Engineers, Apprentice Engineer. Cargo Deck: Cargo Master, Cargo apprentice, Medic, Cook-Stewart. And of course the ship's cat.

Normally a spacer of the Free Trader class would carry -- Charis reckoned what she did know about such ships -- normally a captain, cargomaster, assistant pilot-navigator, (com-tech,) engineer and his assistant, a jet man, a medico, a cook -- perhaps an assistant cargomaster. But that was a fully staffed ship, not a fringe tramp. She thought there had been four men on board beside Jagan...

They were too far from the spy post for their features to be distinguished, but while they wore uniforms of a similar cut to those at the post, Charis had never seen these before. The black and silver of Patrol, the green-brown of Survey, the gray and red of the Medical service, the blue of Administration, the plain green of the Rangers, the maroon of Education -- she could identify those at a glance. But these were a light yellow.

From ORDEAL IN OTHERWHERE by Andre Norton (1964)


In the game GURPS: Traveller Starships are the following rules for the size of spacecraft crews.

For spacecraft under 140,000 cubic meters.

Basic Bridge jobs: Captain, Pilot, Navigator, Sensor Operator/Officer, Communication Operator/Officer. In many cases one person will fill several of the jobs.

Command Bridge jobs: all the Basic Bridge jobs, plus one to three extra sensor operators, one to three extra communication officers, a computer officer, and a science fictional defensive force field officer.

Sickbay: two medics for the first sickbay, at least one for each additional sickbay, one sickbay per 120 passenger staterooms.

Engineering: about one Engineer for each 500 cubic meters of propulsion system.

Weapons: one gunner per weapon turret.

Cargo: one cargo master (may be another job taken by the Captain).

Passenger Staterooms: One master steward. One additional steward per 50 middle class passengers and one per 20 high class passengers.

For spacecraft over 140,000 cubic meters. These numbers are averages, military vessels will have larger crews to allow for multiple shifts.

Command Section: Commanding officer, Executive officer, two Navigation officers, Communication officer, as support personnel a number of rating crewmen equal to 50% of the number of officers. On ships over 3,000,000 cubic meters the number of personnel in command section should be about five per 1,400,000 cubic meters.

Engineering Section: about one Engineer for each 500 cubic meters of propulsion system.

Gunnery Section: One chief gunnery officer. One petty officer for each kind of weapon the ship is armed with. For "spinal" weapons (where the ship's spine is composed of one huge weapon) one crew man per 14,000 cubic meters. Each weapon "bay" requires two crew men, each battery of turrets requires one crew man. The total crew complement in gunnery section will be about 10% officers, 30% petty officers, and 60% crew men.

Medical Section: One chief medical officer. One full time medic or assistant per 50 people on board.

Service Section: For shops, storage, security, food service, etc. If there are no troops, 3 service crew per 140,000 cubic meters or 100 other crew, whichever is larger. If the ship carries troops, 2 service crew per 140,000 cubic meters or 100 other crew, whichever is larger. A luxury liner will have even more service crew.

Troop Section: Military vessels over 140,000 cubic meters will have "marines" (space-ines?). The number will range from 3 per 140,000 cubic meters to 3 per 14,00 cubic meters.

Specialist Section: Cargo specialists, science crew, intelligence officers, liaison officers, electronic warfare officers, etc. As needed.

Stranger In A Strange Land

Robert Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land suggested these crew skills as a minimal list for an interplanetary exploration spacecraft:

  • astrogator
  • medical doctor
  • cook
  • machinist
  • ship's commander
  • semantician
  • chemical engineer
  • electronics engineer
  • physicist
  • geologist
  • biochemist
  • atomics engineer
  • photographer
  • hydroponicist
  • rocket engineer

In the novel the ship could only carry a maximum of eight crewmembers, so each person filled a minimum of three of these jobs, and most of them did four or more.

2010: Odyssey Two

In Sir Arthur C. Clarke's 2010, they had these crew positions:

Engineering-PropulsionCaptain Tatiana Orlova
Navigation-AstronomyDr Vasili Orlov
Engineering-StructuresDr Maxim Brailovsky
Engineering-CommunicationsDr Alexander Kovalev
Engineering-Control SystemsDr Nikolai Ternovsky
Medical-Life-SupportSurgeon-Commander Katerina Rudenko
Medical-NutritionDr Irma Yakunina

Young People's Science Encyclopedia

The Young People's Science Encyclopedia, vol 17 Sp-Su, suggest these crew positions:

Crew composition for interplanetary flights
ProfessionSpecializationPrimary Professional ResponsibilityOrganizational Responsibility
Pilot & EngineerMechanical & NuclearOverall vehicle systems, propulsionCommand of spacecraft
Pilot & EngineerElectronicsGuidance, control, navigation on board electronic computer systemFirst deputy commander
Pilot & EngineerElectrical & nuclearAll electrical systems, cable systems, converters, generators, auxiliary power supplySecond deputy commander
Pilot & EngineerNuclearPropulsion specialistSpecialist
Pilot & EngineerMechanicalAll mechanical subsystemsSpecialist
Pilot & EngineerElectronicsInstrumentation communications, robot systemsSpecialist
Pilot & PhysicianMedicine, Dentistry, Psychiatry, Radiology, Biology, Medical technologyBiotechnical life support systems, food and sanitary control, health and morale of crewMedical officer
Crew composition for Terra-Luna flight
ProfessionSpecializationPrimary Professional ResponsibilityOrganizational Responsibility
Pilot & EngineerMechanical & NuclearVehicle systems, all mechanical and electric subsystems and propulsionCommand of spacecraft
Pilot & EngineerElectronics & ElectricalGuidance, control, navigation, all instrumentation and communicationFirst deputy commander
Pilot & PhysicianMedicine, Radiology, Biology, Medical technologyBiotechnical subsystems of life support systems, food and sanitary control, health and comfort of crewMedical officer

Job Names

There are some standard nick-names for various jobs (some of these are strictly military).

Black GangEngine room crew (reference to shoveling coal)
Boats, Bos'nBoatswain
X BubbasGeneric term for group of officers. May apply to segment of the warfare community, or officers assigned to a specific location or command. (e.g., Orbital Warfare Bubbas, J9 Bubbas, etc.)
ChiefChief Engineer
Chief Snake and his boy
(aka Ratfink and Dob-in)
Coxwain (in charge of ship's discipline and also steering the ship) and assistant
CookyChief Mess Officer
Deck ApesBoatswains mates, Flight deck crew, Aviation Boatswains Mates
FueliesAviation Boatswain's Mate - Fueling
Guns, Gunner, GunnyGunnery officer, Gunner's Mates
Jack in the DustBaker
Knuckle draggerCrewmember with more brawn than brain
Mess CranksNon-rated men assigned to assist in the galley
NukesNuclear power techs
OrdiesOrdnance techs
SnipesEngineering officer
Sparks, SparkyRadio officer or Electronics tech
SpooksIntelligence, Electronic Warfare and Cryptography officers
TwidgetsElectronic Warfare officers
WingnutCrewmember of limited intelligence who is safer away from
anything more hazardous than a pencil
X WeenieGeneric Term. The "Intel Weenie" is the Intelligence Specialist
ZerosOfficers (used by enlisted men only)


In the game SPI's Universe, there are some colorful names for various professions.

AstroguardMember of a planet's or star system's local military spacecraft force.
Star SailorMember of the federal spacecraft navy.
FreefallerSoldier in the zero-gravity branch of the federal armed forces.
RangerSoldier in the standard ground branch of the federal armed forces.
SpacetrooperSoldier in the assault force branch of the federal armed forces.
ScoutMember of the exploration branch of the federal armed forces.

Future job terms

Tyge Sjostrand suggest the term Espatiers for space marines, since after all the term "marine" implies the ocean (French marine, from Latin marinus, derived from mare "sea"). The best guess I have at how it is pronounced is "Ess pa tee yea". Rick Robinson really likes Mr. Sjostrand suggestion:

"Espatier" is a twofer. Its formation exactly parallels "Marine" (also French-derived, as are nearly all basic military terms), and it also parallels the English word "spacer," but with a nice shade of meaning - a spacer is anyone who lives/works in space; an espatier is a space soldier.

Tyge Sjostrand

Frederik Vezina disagrees about the pronunciation.

While the suggested "Ess pa tee yea" isn't especially unlikely, the French would be much closer to "Ess pa cee yay", as the t in the French "spatial" is pronounced like an s or a soft c.

The English adaptation would almost certainly end in "yea", because that's what usually happens to French words, but the c sound would likely remain, IMO.

Frederik Vezina

And in the anime Macross, the (Japanese) writers noted that the military on the ground is called the "Army" and the military on the ocean is called the "Navy", so logically the military in space would be called the "Spacy" (alternatively it could be a contraction of "Space Navy"). Since the release of Macross, the term has been used in other works: Martian Successor Nadesico, Voices of a Distant Star, and Mobile Suit Gundam.

Alas, "Spacy" is a little too similar to "Spacey", which in the slang of the United States means "vague and dreamy, as if under the influence of drugs".


In the days of wooden sailing vessels and iron men, large ships operated for months, sometimes years, out of communication with their home port. Ships' officers had to have excellent generalist educations, familiarity with all manner of nautical engineering, what passed for science and medicine, and the forms of management psychology appropriate to all-male crews, some of whom had been "pressed" (impressed or shanghaied) and some of whom were such social misfits that they either liked or accepted being locked up in a tiny vessel with the scum of the earth for years.

Unsupported ships far from home encounter situations that require instant, appropriate, response. There is no time to take a vote. And if a vote were taken, the result would likely not be optimal, since if the crew were sufficiently competent to make management-level decisions in the first place, they'd likely not have been drunk under the tables in those bars where there "Press Gangs" dug them up.

Hierarchical command structures became the norm, even for ships on non-military missions, LONG before we had formalized governments and armies and navies. It was the only way to insure that the ship would probably return home!

The reason for NAVAL structure over "Army" or "Air Force" has to do with organizational psychology; over centuries, civilized Navies have specialized in operating and caring for ships which represent a huge capital expenditure on the part of their society. A ship's Captain SIGNS for that ship when he takes command; he is personally responsible for every nut, bolt, and person aboard. He is responsible for maintenance, training, condition, survival, of the vessel.

If an Army unit gets shot up, the survivors can run in all directions and try to regroup. If an Air Force aircraft gets shot down, parachutes and internment are a potential option. If a Naval vessel gets whacked, all you have are several hundred (or several thousand) expensively-trained people swimming around in circles while the sharks pick out lunch.

Thus, the SHIP is the heart of the naval unit, and the Captain and his command staff the godlike nerve center of the commensal entity. A naval craft is a city-state, a small nation, sufficient unto itself, capable of performing hugely varied missions.

So, to answer your question in brief, it's a tradition of centuries that exploratory and research vessels are operated Navy-style, preferably "ship-shape and Bristol fashion."

Note that Heinlein was a Naval Academy grad who served on shipboard, Malcolm Jameson was a Naval command officer, Theodore Sturgeon served in the Merchant Marine, A. Bertram Chandler spent his entire career at sea as a command officer, a skipper from the early forties on.... and so on, and so on. (E.E. Smith was an Army officer, and as far as I know, John W. Campbell, Jr., never served.)

While folks like Russell had a field day sticking pins in brass hats and military pomp, even they accepted at least a quasi-Naval organizational structure as the automatic best default. (I believe EFR was Royal Army, by the way, a Sandhurst brat.)

Lastly, the initial model Roddenberry used was A.E. Van Vogt's composite novel, "THE VOYAGE OF THE SPACE BEAGLE," which was very loosely modeled on the voyage of the Royal Navy craft, H.M.S. Beagle; and Roddenberry served briefly as a Navy (sic actually USAAF) pilot in WWII. (Although not a terribly distinguished one, he did manage to get out of the war with his rank and flight qualifications intact, and flew as a commercial pilot for a time.) Thus, "Old Trek" was imbued with a slight naval tradition at the outset, and since it's been an unconscious model for TV-SkiFfy for three decades, we get some naval tradition in TV SF as well as the more formalized standard in written SF.

The major problems with the handling of the military in "BABYLON 5" come from the fact that none of the writers and producers appear to have any actual military experience, and I strongly suspect that JMS had no understanding of traditional military rank structures and protocols at the outset, thus generating himself a mishmosh of errors that it will be a great deal of trouble to clear up. Naval and Army rank systems have been fairly standardized for centuries, and it's very unlikely that something that works so well will have gone by the board in a mere 150 years. While it may happen that rank-names or insignia become standardized across branches of service, it still makes some sense to maintain a bit of differentiation between branch ranks.

(Our present-day mismatch of the rank "Captain" is worth a repair job, for example; a Land Captain is an O-3, rarely in charge of more than a Company (figure 150 men, tops.) A Naval Captain is an O-6, in charge of major vessels or installations; he's the equivalent of a Land Colonel, three ranks above a Land Captain. This kind of thing could use some work, in all likelihood.)

David G. Potter

Captain Christopher Thrash of the US 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment disagrees with the paragraphs above in yellow:

This part of the essay is misleading: the commander of an Army unit or an Air Force aircraft is exactly as personally responsible for their respective success and well-being as a Naval commander is for his vessel, at least in US law.

The meaningful distinctions are centralization and duration:

Any Army (or Marine) unit of whatever size will, since the American Civil War, "run in all directions" virtually all the time -- except on the parade field. The exercise of command is therefore indirect (via nested orders of increasing detail and specificity) and decentralized, as opposed to the "one will rules all" of a ship at sea or in space. In this sense, ground units are more akin to squadrons, wings or fleets of ships or aircraft, rather than individual vehicles.

Aircraft are the heart and focus of an Air Force organization, every bit as much as a ship is for a Navy. The difference here is that aircraft depart from a (more or less) secure base, conduct their mission, and return to it in a matter of hours, not weeks or months. An Air Force therefore puts its combatants (officers, mostly) in harm's way, while leaving the supporting crew behind. Naval vessels carry most of their support with them wherever they go.

The distinction the author makes between downed aviators and naval crew in the water is a cheap shot: bailing out over enemy territory is no more safe or pleasant than being cast adrift, and naval crews are every bit as subject to capture and internment. Again, the distinction is that only the direct combatants are at risk in an aircraft, while all the support personnel are exposed in a ship (or a ground unit, for that matter).

Captain Christopher Thrash

Traditionally, the areas of the craft closest to the control rooms is known as "officer country", while the greasy cabled and be-piped areas inhabited by sergeants and enlisted men is known as "below decks" (though which is below what becomes an open question in microgravity).