Working on a book on interstellar flight in 2002, I came across a paper in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society with a bold title: “A Programme for Interstellar Exploration.” I already knew that its author, Robert Forward, was a major figure in the world of deep space studies, an aerospace engineer and inventor with a deep knowledge of physics as well as a popular science fiction author, in whose stories many of his futuristic ideas were played out. What I didn’t know until I read the paper was that this man had proposed a step-by-step plan for reaching the stars way back in 1975 at a meeting at the U.S. House of Representatives.
These were bold years for interstellar thinking, as witness Forward’s appearance before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications that year. Forward developed a fifty-year plan for interstellar exploration that, in his words, ‘envisions the launch of automated interstellar probes to nearby stellar systems around the turn of the century, with manned exploration commencing 25 years later.’ He went on to discuss five possibilities for interstellar propulsion systems based on a series of projections of technology programs in nuclear fusion, particle physics, high-power lasers and thermonuclear explosives. Imagine Forward telling these political leaders that a manned starship might embark for Alpha Centauri by the year 2025.
A Home for Visionaries
It all seems a bit surreal, given what has happened to our space plans after Apollo, but Forward’s paper on these matters in JBIS is still lively reading, and so is another interstellar program put forward by Michael Michaud, then an official with the U.S. State Department. Michaud’s plan discussed the possibilities of interplanetary exploration and moved into the interstellar realm by envisioning a search for extrasolar planets (at the time, of course, we knew of none). His closely reasoned program for colonizing the Solar System would in his schedule be followed by the first star probes using fusion technologies beginning around 2010 .
Here again I turned to one of the JBIS ‘red cover’ interstellar issues, finding Michaud’s paper “Spaceflight, Colonization and Independence” in a 1977 issue. And as I began to work my way through this particular period in interstellar studies, I learned that between 1974 and 1991, the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society had published numerous red cover issues focused on interstellar matters under the editorship at various times of Anthony Martin, J. Hardy and Gerald Groves. When I mentioned the quality of this work to Geoffrey Landis during an interview at NASA Glenn, he told me that JBIS had been the home of advanced concept thinking on deep space for a long time. The red cover issues proved him right.
The problem with JBIS when I was working on my Centauri Dreams book was that, although I had access to an excellent academic library online, the JBIS Interstellar Studies issues with the red covers were, like the rest of the journal’s output, unavailable in full text form. That meant making my way to the local university library, where I quickly became familiar with the red cover issues and worked my way through Project Daedalus, not to mention the numerous studies of interstellar propulsion schemes, communications matters and speculations about alien life.
It’s good to see the British Interplanetary Society moving to make these key papers more accessible. The red cover issues, covering the full range of interstellar studies, are now available by the paper or journal issue directly from the BIS. The Interstellar Studies Index can be accessed for a look at what’s available, with the last Interstellar Studies issue being the August, 1991 journal, where I find a Greg Matloff study on precursor solar sail probes, and Robert Zubrin’s “Nuclear Salt Water Rockets: High Thrust at 10,000 Seconds ISP.” But working through the index pulls up many familiar names, including Michael Michaud’s “A Manifesto for Expansion,” many Robert Forward papers, Giovanni Vulpetti’s work on antimatter, and classic papers that have energized the field, like Matloff’s “Solar Sail Starships: The Clipper Ships of the Galaxy.” The red cover issues are a compendium of the best interstellar thinking of their era and form a key reference for anyone working on these matters today.
Building a Scholarly Infrastructure
I have stacks of printouts of these papers filled with check marks and comments here in my office. I’ve used them over the years, but paging through them I’m reminded that the red cover issues form only a part of what JBIS has published — and continues to publish — on interstellar topics. It was here that Arthur C. Clarke’s famous ‘Challenge of the Spaceship’ paper appeared back in 1946, and where Les Shepherd wrote (in 1952) the first technical paper on interstellar flight. I should also mention, in addition to numerous papers on worldships, the interstellar bibliographies produced by Eugene Mallove and Robert Forward, which built upon and extended the personal Forward bibliographies he had begun compiling while studying engineering at UCLA.
We’re talking about the infrastructure of scholarly investigation, and it’s here that interstellar studies still has to come into its own. The Mallove/Forward bibliographies were not continued because, paradoxically, they became too lengthy to maintain. Both men had ongoing research to pursue, and even as new voices emerged in the field, their subject matter of choice continued to be relatively marginalized. Interstellar specialists worked in their spare time, exchanging letters, talking at conferences, but their effort was and is a subset within the much broader aerospace domain. In that environment, full-time interstellar work is a difficult job description.
The exciting developments in astrobiology and exoplanetary astronomy may change this situation. Interstellar studies could use the kind of targeted collections found in the JBIS red cover issues, and just as significantly, could make use of a yearly interstellar bibliography focusing on the issues that define our encounter with the stars, from propulsion to communications to the philosophical questions raised by potential extraterrestrial contact. All of this is, we hope, fodder for the Tau Zero Foundation as we try to support and encourage an effort that has produced remarkable papers and is building a new infrastructure for growth.