Century of the Starship

by Paul Gilster on March 23, 2012

I once thought about putting together a collection of classic papers on interstellar flight. It would start with early work by the likes of Les Shephard, Eugen Sänger and Carl Wiley (whose groundbreaking paper on solar sails appeared not in a scientific journal but in Astounding Science Fiction). The book would proceed with the key papers of Forward, Bussard and Dyson and move into papers from the Project Daedalus report, then to Matloff and Mallove and up to the present day, with a long look at the Italian solar sail work of Vulpetti, Maccone and Genta. Especially later in this period there is abundant material to choose from, and there’s Alcubierre to consider, and Millis’ work with the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project.

And then there’s Geoff Landis and Robert Frisbee and the closely reasoned sociological analyses of Michael Michaud and… Well, you can see what happens when you start pondering editing possibilities. The book is already growing to enormous size and I’ve done no more than sketch out the basic parameters. A book like this would also do well to include some science fiction, which has energized so many scientists as they ponder making their concepts real. A hybrid anthology — scientific papers mixed with science fiction — is a rare beast, though as we’ll see in a minute, it’s been done before.

I’m glad to see that Jim and Gregory Benford think it’s time to do it again, in the form of a new anthology based on the discussions at the 100 Year Starship Symposium in Orlando. Starship Century is to be the title, and the idea is to examine the ideas of current leading figures in interstellar studies — Robert Zubrin, Jill Tarter, Martin Rees, Paul Davies and many of those I’ve already listed above — in light of the latest developments. The 100 Year Starship Symposium is a natural trigger for this book, exploring as it did how a civilization expands into its solar system, developing the needed tools of interplanetary communications and propulsion as, in the words of Jim Benford, it “…focuses outward for its own evolution.” Into the mix will be science fiction from Steven Baxter, Nancy Kress, Allen Steele, Joe Haldeman and others.

“The anthology theme is the development of starships as a key inspiring goal for future interplanetary technologies, leading to the ability to build the first starships within a century,” says Gregory Benford, an award-winning science fiction author and physicist. “It addresses how future growth of an interplanetary economy can occur, leading to starships.”

Starship Century will mix the fiction and the science in equal measure in a volume slated to go on sale in about a year, with additional contributors to be announced in coming months. Unlike my solely hypothetical anthology, this one will collect not historical papers but state-of-the-art science. Those of us who had the privilege of being at the conference — and I think there were a couple of thousand all told — will look forward to seeing some of the remarkable talent that appeared there pushing the discussion forward in this new venue. Although what I once described as the ‘interstellar buzz’ of the symposium has cooled a bit since then, we’re still seeing more activity across the spectrum of interstellar studies than at any time in my memory.

I mentioned above how unusual it is to have anthologies that mix science with science fiction, but there are two exceptions that quickly prove the rule. The first is a volume edited by Arthur C. Clarke called Project Solar Sail (New York: Roc, 1990). This chunky paperback should be on your shelf, containing as it does fiction by David Brin, Clarke himself (“The Wind from the Sun”), Larry Niven and others as well as papers by Eric Drexler, Robert Forward and Louis Friedman. There’s the obligatory nod to Tennyson (“Saw the heavens filled with commerce / Argosies of magic sails”) and a longer attempt at sail poetry by Ray Bradbury and Jonathan V. Post.

We also have a book called Going Interstellar, edited by MSFC’s Les Johnson and science fiction writer Jack McDevitt, coming up for publication in May, and although I don’t have the contents list, I do know this one is also going to mix essays by space scientists and engineers with science fiction from a variety of authors. We have much to look forward to in the coming year or so as the echoes of the 100 Year Starship Symposium continue to resonate, and the hope here is that the synergy between science and science fiction that animates Starship Century reflects a growing public enthusiasm for our prospects in the Solar System and beyond.

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Ian Sales March 23, 2012 at 9:57

There’s also Rocket Science, due to be published in early April. See http://www.mutationpress.com/

Mark Phelps March 23, 2012 at 10:42

Hi Paul,

Three copies of each title please,to start!

Best regards,

Mark

Athena Andreadis March 23, 2012 at 11:14

There is also Geoff Ryman’s science/SF anthology When It Changed — which (the gods forbid!) contains biology among its science.

Judging by the names of the participants, the Benford project won’t contain much biology either.

A. A. Jackson March 23, 2012 at 11:54

Interstellar flight is an odd fish. Tsiolkovsky, Goddard and Oberth had nailed interplanetary flight , it may be there but I am not aware of them making a serious study of starflight*. I do have evidence that French engineer , aviator, inventor and sculptor(!) Robert Esnault-Pelterie did investigate interstellar flight as early as 1912 and derived the ‘Ackeret’ relativistic rocket equation in 1928 , 18 years before Ackert’s paper in Helvetica Physica Acta. Esnault-Pelterie seems to be a forgotten figure , or lest not well known in interstellar flight.
By 1930 interstellar flight is just rampant in modern science fiction prose. There are good accounts of it in various SF encyclopedias , one the best in my collection is The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Brian Ash published in 1977.
During the 1930′s until the late 1940”s SF is were starflight stayed. If there is a definitive treatment with the correct chronology of star flight in prose science fiction I don’t know of it, even the good ones I know don’t seem to be inclusive. I would just love to see one, sorry I just don’t have the inclination to do it myself.
(*Wikipedia is dogged in calling it Interstellar Travel and acting if there was something verboten about saying Interstellar Flight, I don’t know why. Interstellar Flight seems more common in the literature than Interstellar Travel even if it means the same thing.)

Gregory Benford March 23, 2012 at 14:14

Actually, Athena, probably the longest part of the book concerns habitat and biology issues.
I find it striking that an essential to most starflight novels etc is “coldsleep” or “biostasis” but very little research in that direction among biologists. That may be a crucial issue, indeed.

Gerald Warfield March 23, 2012 at 15:48

Excellent! I want copies. Keep me informed.

Athena Andreadis March 23, 2012 at 15:52

There is plenty of such research going on, Greg. It’s just not flashy enough for PR hounds, although it includes mainstream items like embryo freezing; nor is it helped (either scientifically or politically) by the frankly ridiculous claims of cryonicists.

Paul Gilster March 23, 2012 at 15:54

Al Jackson writes:

During the 1930′s until the late 1940”s SF is where starflight stayed. If there is a definitive treatment with the correct chronology of star flight in prose science fiction I don’t know of it, even the good ones I know don’t seem to be inclusive. I would just love to see one, sorry I just don’t have the inclination to do it myself.

Exactly what I have just embarked on, though it will take some time.

Athena Andreadis March 23, 2012 at 15:57

So who are the bona fide biologists (broadly defined) who will be part of your antho, Greg?

bill March 23, 2012 at 19:29

Paul,

You wrote the following ” … I once thought about putting together a collection of classical papers on interstellar flight. It would start with early work by the likes of Les Sheppard, Eugen Sanger and Carl Wiley (whose groundbreaking paper on solar sails appeared not in a scientific journal but in Astounding Science Fiction). The book would proceed with the key papers of Forward, Bussard, and Dyson and move into papers from the Project Daedalus report, then to Matloft and Mallove and up to the present day, with a long look at the Italian solar sail work of Vulpetti, Maccone, and Genta. Especially later this period there is abundant material to choose from, and there’s Alcubierre to consider, and Millis’ work with the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project.”

Personally I think that this is a great idea that I believe you should pursue independent of any other books or papers that may be coming out. Why do I say that ? Simple, the topics that you have listed above could be the original papers with annotation and commentary on your part which would be better to enhance and refine what the reader is reading. What I’m trying to say in simple words is that a book could be created which would retain the technical depth of the original authors while simultaneously complemented by the layman’s analysis and views on said papers. Anyway I believe it would be a book well worth pursuing. I would say though forgo any of the science fiction additions.

Rob Henry March 23, 2012 at 19:56

To my mind biology, other than molecular biology, seems way behind other branches of science. Even such basic questions such as what is the maximum human life span given optimum conditions (but before the usage of genetic modification, or special longevity drugs).

The best guesses that I saw just a few decades ago seemed to just take the same naive approach that I would, and used demographic data. Pepy II lived to be 99, and only a handful of people in modern times had ever been known to live past 110, so at the time a hundred seemed to be a reasonable estimate. If that were fundamentally true, the increase in life expectancy should have tailed off in developed countries, yet it seems to increase at the same 2-3 months/year pace as always. Worse still, I have seen data strongly suggesting no correlation between age and further life expectancy after the age of 90.

If it turns out that we should be planning for interstellar voyages using a 150 year human life expectancy, then that should have rather a large impact on our plans.

Paul Gilster March 23, 2012 at 20:33

bill writes:

Simple, the topics that you have listed above could be the original papers with annotation and commentary on your part which would be better to enhance and refine what the reader is reading. What I’m trying to say in simple words is that a book could be created which would retain the technical depth of the original authors while simultaneously complemented by the layman’s analysis and views on said papers. Anyway I believe it would be a book well worth pursuing. I would say though forgo any of the science fiction additions.

Good ideas here, bill, and I continue to think about taking on a project like this. Thanks for the encouragement!

Eniac March 23, 2012 at 21:27

Paul, I know that both books (the one suggested and the one embarked on) would and hopefully will be must-reads in this area. I can’t wait…

Joy March 24, 2012 at 0:23

Ok, it has been 23 years since The Starflight Handbook was published in 1989, back when there were no known extrasolar planets and no known KBOs other than Pluto/Charon. In the interim we have flown a few missions to asteroids and comets with ion engines and even got 0.1 km/sec delta v out of a prototype solar sail deployed in interplanetary space. Yes, it is time for a new book for a new generation.

My pet peeve: The historical papers should be presented with modern introductions for context and clear headed, up to date, critical quantitative analysis of the feasibility of the old ideas. If that is done right, some fiction or poetry would be just fine.

PS: In my opinion, Alcubierre would belong in the fiction section along with unicorns. Except, given that horses do exist and so does the closely related rhinoceros, it is quite credible that one day bioengineers could make one horned horses (although hopefully not for pharmaceutical purposes). No part of Alcubierre’s flight of fantasy could be engineered in our universe. Including such nonsense would actually discredit the book and repel the future engineers one should most want to inspire.

Joy March 24, 2012 at 1:13

Re Biology:

Bowhead whales seem to be able to live over 200 years. With some gene tweaks (yet to be determined), there is no reason that eventually humans could not achieve the same.

Freezing whole humans for revival is from the realm of fantasy. But other tissues can be frozen. In PNAS last month, Russian researchers Yashina et al reported successful growth of plants from fruits buried in permafrost for 30,000 years. Human fertilized eggs might have a similar shelf life at cryogenic temperatures.

“Cold Sleep” suspended animation of baseline adult humans is a SF topic but not a serious research topic for good reason. We have been doing infant open heart surgery under deep hypothermic circulatory arrest since the 1970s, but this is not sustainable for space travel!

There is another strategy, to bioengineer a Homo soporatus for deep space missions. This would involve the development of a new variety of humans using metabolic gene systems borrowed from animals that are obligate hibernators. This would certainly help with the problems of boredom and resource consumption. Unfortunately, hibernators must occasionally warm up in order to sleep (hibernation is NOT sleep). So each crew member would have to be warm and metabolizing at the normal rate for at least 10% of the time in transit. This is a strategy for making the decades go by faster, not the millennia.

Paul Gilster March 24, 2012 at 9:26

Joy writes:

My pet peeve: The historical papers should be presented with modern introductions for context and clear headed, up to date, critical quantitative analysis of the feasibility of the old ideas.

A splendid approach, I think, and one that could produce a truly useful book.

A. A. Jackson March 24, 2012 at 14:26

re: biology
I , like most interested in interstellar flight have invested a lot of energy in solving the ‘v’ problem, as in distance (d) = velocity(v)*time(t) (Newtonian picture suffices). What about ‘t’? The engineering physics of the ‘v’ problem have been worked out pretty well for the STL problem, and, against all expectations , there are actually quantitative talking points for FTL (tho methinks something definitive is still way down the road).
The ‘t’ problem for a long time was framed around the ‘v’ problem, the average, even extended life span of a human. Indeed there is literature , both non fiction and science fiction about the ‘t’ problem.
Still, the great cutting edge science right now, is not elementary particle physics or cosmology (as wild as the theories in the present are) but it is biophysics, microbiology, especially as physics and chemistry apply to molecular biology.
A biologist friend of mine told me once that as vast as is modern technology that we can bring to bear , “biology is a complicated mess”.
As impossible as it is to predict when artificial intelligence will be attained, if ever, the unraveling of a comprehensive map and understanding of biology has a horizon of predictability that is hard to even formulate.
Let us suppose that at some future date the ‘t’ problem is solved, be it post biological ‘natural’ solution or “cybernetic organism”. Some entity that lives on the scale of astronomical times. What kind of socio-cultural civilization would result from this? Note I am talking about humankind.
We don’t know.
I have always thought this was a major consideration when thinking about the Fermi Paradox. I am convinced that Fermi’s ‘question’ is an excersie in deterministic chaos. The answer is a no-call , fun to talk about, but people are kidding themselves if they think there is any conclusions to be drawn.

Jacob Bronowski always comes to mind when thinking on this, I have re-framed one of his quotes:
Look at a human hand, it would take 4.5 billions years to design and build such a thing. That is exactly how long it took.

Eniac March 24, 2012 at 15:56

Joy,

Bowhead whales seem to be able to live over 200 years. With some gene tweaks (yet to be determined), there is no reason that eventually humans could not achieve the same.

Freezing whole humans for revival is from the realm of fantasy.

I agree on the whales, but would like to point out that there are frogs and other animals that survive the winter frozen solid. Freezing humans may require more than “some gene tweaks”, but this is also true for the 200 year lifespan.

Adam Crowl March 25, 2012 at 3:00

Life-span seems to scale with body-size for mammals. Might need to be very large to live very long. Living 200 years, but being as big as a whale might make the interstellar transit tricky to engineer.

Ole Burde March 25, 2012 at 15:55

Joy said :
“There is another strategy, to bioengineer a Homo soporatus for deep space missions. ”
In theory this could be possible , but in praksis anyboddy who would try to DO anything effective in that direction would become a paria , a social outcast , because it involves breaking one of the most powerfull TABOOS of our time : Human genetic engineering . The only way to do it would be in total secrecy and in coopereation with criminals or barbaric dictators .
Not a good Idea …
In short it would demand a revolutionary change in the way our culture works , of the kind that at best has happened in the timeframe of several hundreds of years .
A more realistic strategy is to SELECT the creew in a way that takes full advantage of the incredible variation that exist among the natural human population , a crew that can endure isolation and a tough unnatural environment for generations . Whatever humans do , there are allways a few lucky individuals who are capable of a performance level far , far beyond the average . Professional Tennis is a good examble of how this works at its best , which is the exact opposite of bureaucratic selectionprocess . Just imagine trying to select the next champion by screening aplicants and having them fill out a lot of papers ?
The hard question then becomes HOW to establish a longterm competitive selectionprocess , which would eventually identify a few hundred candidates who would be both willing and capable of living , bringing up their children and dying in a small closed environmemt .

Rob Henry March 25, 2012 at 17:23

Ole, Joy is right is not to place her extrapolation of what could be achieved a generation hence across a projected filter of the mores of that time. Psychology is currently an abysmal science, and who knows how long this current anti GE feeling will last. Will the consensuses just a decade from now still be that it is better to let million starve in the third world than to plant GE crops?

Fernando Badilla March 25, 2012 at 17:33

Just wanted to point out the obvious: We are already in a real proven spaceship!

The engine is the sun and the habitable area is the earth.

Instead of making new designs we should think about copying the one that already has been working for us…

Daniel March 25, 2012 at 21:05

It’s a long time since that I saw here in Centauri dreams some article that talk about Advanced Propulsion Physics

this one here look very interest:

Eagleworks Laboratories: Advanced Propulsion Physics Research

http://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=20110023492

and here is the PDF link:

http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20110023492_2011024705.pdf

Gregory Benford March 26, 2012 at 0:58

Fernando Badilla:

Larry Niven and I have finished the first volume of a novel about just such a contraption. It’s BOWL OF HEAVEN, out this Fall in hardcover. Much engineering hidden in it.

Gregory Benford

bigdan201 March 26, 2012 at 3:29

Just wanted to point out the obvious: We are already in a real proven spaceship!
The engine is the sun and the habitable area is the earth.
Instead of making new designs we should think about copying the one that already has been working for us…

I’ve always been intrigued by rogue planets floating between star systems. Such a place could become a more literal worldship – a permanent home drifting through the cosmos, possibly allowing for disembarkations to viable solar systems.

I don’t see faster-than-light as being possible without some sort of massive breakthrough in foldspace or wormholes. I do see quick interstellar travel as possible (significant fractions of c), although it’s one of the biggest engineering challenges there are. All the impetus it needs is an attractive exo-earth within reasonable distance.

For either of these situations, we simply need more exoplanet science to be done, which is something I’m highly optimistic about.

then of course, there’s the model that emphasizes space habitats as the main living space off-earth. I’m sure some will develop, but I personally believe that humans will naturally be drawn to planets, for better or worse.

By the way – I wonder how common breathable atmospheres are?

Ole Burde March 26, 2012 at 5:51

Rob Henry
Ofcourse it COULD happen that the human-related anti GE feeling would go away togeher with the obvious stupidity of blocking the use of a powerful tool for growing more food .
My feeling is , that it woud be awaste of time to wait and see if the future holds such a development . In order to solve a realy hard problem , the best strategy is often to solve it twice , in the hope that one of the solutions wil actually work .
If we take as a working hypotesis hat a propulsion system will be ready in a hundred years , then it would be a good idea if other components of starflight also are ready at that time . Solution nr1 , the selecton of the right crew , might be a very chalenging problem , involving (as an examble) having a potential “tribe” of crew living in a closed selfsustaining environment in Antarktis for a hundres years . Equally dificult , even if the taboo goes away, will it bee solution nr2 , thta is to reengeneeer the human genome to include the possiblity of coldsleep . The Best ofcourse would be to have BOTH solutions ready to bee components in a more advanced structure …

Eniac March 26, 2012 at 7:21

Fernando, what is just as obvious: The “spaceship” we are currently in is not going anywhere, making it more like an island than a ship. Thus the new designs.

tesh March 26, 2012 at 8:53

GE is not the only solution for interstellar travel.

There are also:
full “download”, ala matrix style, into cyborg or ship or something else
chemical road to longevity
hibernation
“normal” procreation / generation ships

The resistance to GE will dissipate within 20 years in my humble opinion. It will be due to diminishing resources and increased competition for the remaining resources. It will lead to ever increasingly desperate strategies to stay “ahead”. These will include GE experimentation, (enforced???) euthanasia and a greater melding for the bio-silico (not of the boob variety) spheres.

Ole Burde March 26, 2012 at 11:40

Tesh
20 Years ? Just try to imagine the following scenario : in 20 years time a major university or hospital wants to do research into creating humans capable of beeing frozen . After sucsesfull experiments with rats , dogs and (in secret !) monkeys , they will eventually need a good quantity of frozen human embroes or eggs or whatever . Where are they going to get those legally ? In order to get them , someboddy will have to sign that its legal , thats how the system works .Who is going to risk being lynched by angry flashmobbs ? No Judge , politician or bureaucrat is going to risk his career for anything like that without powerfull presssuregroups ballancing the equation . Not in 20 years , and probably not in 50 either .

tesh March 26, 2012 at 16:39

There are plenty of countries that do not adhere to international laws. Case and point is the bomb. North Korea has it and soon Iran probably will also. Another is with treatment leading to pregnancy of older and older women – these cases appear in diverse socio-economic countries. Yet another case is with cloning. Production of HIV anti-virals is another. In many of these cases multiple international laws are probably being broken.

Alex Tolley March 26, 2012 at 21:16

@Ole Burde “No Judge , politician or bureaucrat is going to risk his career for anything like that without powerfull presssuregroups ballancing the equation . Not in 20 years , and probably not in 50 either .”

You mean in the USA. How parochial. There is a whole world outside of the US, with different cultures, moralities and laws. GE humans may well be created outside the USA. However, I would bet that decades of genetic enhancement by the wealthy on their children will pave the way for more drastic GE on humans. Whether we can achieve being frozen and revived will be a technical issue, probably not a moral one, by then.

Eniac March 27, 2012 at 22:38

GE on humans is a given and will happen as soon as it can be done, safely. It will start with curing deadly disease (who could be against that), and then slowly progress to less and less drastic improvements. Sure, it will be tough to ultimately define the moral boundaries, but the treatment of cancer, Alzheimers, schizophrenia, and the like are certainly this side of them, so it will happen.

It is not clear at all if GE is necessary or sufficient to achieve cold-sleep, it could be achievable simply by a properly designed procedure, without GE. Or, it could not be practical at all, GE or not.

jkittle March 28, 2012 at 13:19

!) simple fact : hibernating mammals do not have dramatically longer life times.
2) Hey why not build intelligence into a long lived animal ?
3) One problem in longevity research is that to test the sucess of life extension in a genetically engineered newborn takes a LONG TIME. I for one am not interested in running an experiment like that aside form the ethical reasons.
4) life extension for those already born has powerful economic drivers: the bid for personal longevity for the subject paying for the treatment, and also if one could extend the productive years a person has after they enter the labor market ( at age 28 for PH.D’s!)) then the overall economy would benefit. A 5 year extension in the face of a working lifetime of 40 years tacks on a significant advantage if it adds to the length of a persons performance at its zenith. A 100 year extension would have a HUGE impact on general prosperity and lead the the possibility of many long term projects . On the other hand, how do you get rid of aging dictators?
Star drive or no star drive, life extension will continue to make progress . ( form antibiotics, to anti-cholesterol medicine to Alzheimer meds in development. )

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