by Kelvin F. Long
I recently asked Kelvin Long to write an introduction to the Institute for Interstellar Studies he has created, and he was kind enough to send along a useful overview, along with a backgrounder on his own work: “Kelvin Long is an aerospace engineer and physicist. He is chief editor of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, author of the book Deep Space Propulsion: A Roadmap to Interstellar Flight, and was the key founder behind the starship design study Project Icarus. Since 2007 he has worked to catalyse the interstellar community through the organization of lectures, symposia, publications and design studies. He is currently the Executive Director for the Institute for Interstellar Studies, founded in August 2012.” Here Kelvin describes the new Institute and relates its mission to prior work in deep space technologies.
The subject of Interstellar Studies derives its name from a set of special red cover issues of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, published between 1974–1991. These issues included papers on interstellar communications and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). This collection of papers represents a golden age of interstellar research. Indeed, the British Interplanetary Society (established 1933) has been the ‘torch holder’ of the interstellar vision for much of the last half century. Prior to this, the first technical paper addressing the interstellar challenge was published in the same journal in 1952 by Dr Les Shepherd. This can be considered the beginning of interstellar studies as an academic research subject. Throughout the last 60 years many papers have been published addressing the science and technology associated with interstellar flight. Publications have also examined wider questions of social consequences, philosophical viewpoints and political or economic issues. This large body of work demonstrates that the interstellar challenge is one that engulfs a broad range of subjects and likely requires the application of a multitude of solution types.
In recent decades, the subject has gradually gained prominence with several books being published and documentaries made. This has occurred in conjunction with the successful rise of science fiction and the visions of other worlds or starships that these stories would have us visualise. Yet, despite this progress the subject remains unorganized, uncoordinated, un-financed. Most of the credible research is conducted by volunteers, who would perform some other occupation during the day, and design starships during the night. Several organizations have been created in recent years that seek to work towards a coordinated effort. These organizations have noble goals and mission statements but neither has succeeded in creating an umbrella organization for interstellar research or in garnering significant financial investment into the interstellar subject. Although these are excellent attempts to catalyse interstellar research, these organizations have at times struggled to work together co-operatively because of differing ideas of how to achieve the objective for mutual benefit; a necessary condition if the goal of getting the interstellar subject accepted as a mainstream research field is to be achieved.
My own observations of having worked within the interstellar community now since 2007 are what partly motivates me towards the founding of the world’s first dedicated Institute for Interstellar Studies. You could ask why is such an institute needed now? Well, we are at what may be called an inflexion point in national space programs with the emergence of space tourism and space commercialisation, the discovery of many exo-solar planets reigniting interest, all within the backdrop of apparent retreating national space programs. When DARPA and NASA Ames Research Center ran the 100 Year Starship competition, no matter who won, there was a clear message that came from this: The US government put a stamp of approval on the interstellar agenda. This is perhaps the biggest contribution they could have made. Now is the time to use this opportunity and to provide a nexus about which the interstellar community can gather around.
All of the research that has been performed to date on interstellar has been dominated by theoretical studies. These are extremely valuable and they need to continue. This includes more starship designs. I claim that there is only one “starship design” in history and that is the British Interplanetary Society Project Daedalus. This is a controversial claim, but let me explain. In aerospace design, the word ‘design’ has a specific meaning. To me it refers to going from a requirements document, producing a concept, preliminary design and then a detailed design. This includes a configuration layout, performance specification, and appropriate consideration for the systems and subsystems integration. Although the Daedalus design is not without its flaws (due to technological advancement) and design contradictions (a consequence of trying to integrate 1970s technology with several decades hence), the design does meet my criteria for what is meant by an aerospace design.
As an aside, I also refer to starship design as “extreme aerospace engineering”, because the techniques and methods by which you down select to a design solution are no different from any other conventional aerospace vehicles — it is merely the environmental requirements which are extreme. Harsh conditions of radiation exposure, thermal gradients, pressures, detonation rates, cruise velocities, risks and reliability. The only other design which comes close to Daedalus, in my opinion, is the Project Orion design which was completed to the same level of fidelity, although that was mainly for an interplanetary vehicle. To my knowledge, the “interstellar” version was never fully designed. All other papers that have been written on interstellar vehicles, are either mission or vehicle concept studies and not full designs. Hence my claim that Daedalus is the only starship design in history.
Given we only have one attempt, how can people claim that interstellar flight is not possible? We need more reliable and credible studies and this is one of the functions that the Institute for Interstellar Studies will provide. This is also one of the reasons why I created Project Icarus, which is currently managed by the non-profit Icarus Interstellar, for which I was also a co-founder and former Director. Those teams continue to do good work in addressing a wide suite of technical problems. In addition, we want to go beyond just the theoretical studies, and also pursue numerical and experimental programs. These activities will help to build the profile of interstellar, recruit numbers to our ranks, and make the case for interstellar precursor mission studies. Provided all of this is done within an organization that has a viable governance structure and a fully operational and tested program, it is my belief that the securement of investment into the interstellar community will become more viable. No philanthropist is going to invest in one small team with an idea, but they will take a second look if the business case is sound, the organization is professionally established and the cause worthy.
The Institute for Interstellar Studies was created in 2012, sixty years after the publication of the JBIS paper by Dr Les Shepherd. Our goal is to create a long term research strategy which pulls all of the other organizations together in a cooperative way and if we can, to invite significant investment across the field, be it with people, energy or financial assets. If we are successful, then we would share these resources with the other organizations to assist them in growing their grassroots support base, research programs and organizational structure. The vision of the Institute for Interstellar Studies is not to see one organization subsumed into another, but to create a nexus about which all of the other organizations can depend upon, so as to assist them to affect their individual mission statements to the best of their ability and resources. Each organization would then leverage the capacity and contacts of the others for mutual benefit. In addition, the institute will also undertake its own research programs as well as set up an educational academy to assist students who desire to work towards a career in space.
Similar science institutes have been created throughout history which serve as an example of what is required. One example includes the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada, which opened in 2001. This is an independent research center in foundational, theoretical physics located in Waterloo, Ontario. Founded in 1999, it works to advance the understanding of physical laws and develop new ideas about space, time, matter and information. They started with an initial seed of $100 million in October 2000, received a further $50 million in June 2008. They have had annual budgets of order $50 million in both 2006 and 2007 from the Canadian government. Another example is the SETI Institute, which was founded in 1984 on a $25 million donation from Paul Allen and matched by a further $25 million donation and government grant. The institute is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe. Both the PI Institute and the SETI Institute do excellent work, and these organizations serve as examples for what can be accomplished, with some work. Although the Institute for Interstellar Studies begins life as a virtual entity, its ambitions are to become as big as these organizations and discussions are already under way towards the securement of a physical facility.
The current mission of the Institute for Interstellar Studies is to conduct activities or research relating to the challenges of achieving robotic and human interstellar flight. We will address the scientific, technological, political and social and cultural issues. We will seed high-risk high-gain initiatives, and foster the breakthroughs where they are required. We will work with anyone cooperatively from the global community who desires to invest their time, energy and resources towards catalyzing an interstellar civilization. Our goal is to create the conditions on Earth and in space so that starflight becomes possible by the end of the twenty-first century or sooner by helping to create an interplanetary and then an interstellar explorer species. We will seek out evidence of life beyond the Earth, wherever it is to be found. We will achieve this by harnessing knowledge, new technologies, imagination and intellectual value to create innovative design and development concepts, defined and targeted public outreach events as well as cutting edge entrepreneurial and educational programs.
The Institute for Interstellar Studies will focus its efforts on several areas, this includes:
(1) Providing a facility for fundamental research into interstellar flight.
(2) Providing an Educational Academy to support students on their careers to become space scientists or other related fields.
(3) To initiate knowledge capture activities so that information is readily available to the research community through data libraries and publications using new technology tools.
(4) To undertake educational activities which are focussed on increasing the designer capability of physicists and engineers as well as other scientific disciplines, so that we may better assess the various technical problems associated with Starship design.
(5) To create actual blueprints for Starship concepts, designs and mission demonstrators.
(6) To properly assess the requirements for an appropriate strategic and technological roadmap that will see interstellar flight become a reality over the next century.
(7) To help to foster new theoretical, computational and experimental tools to help scientists and engineers to solve the fundamental R&D problems that can make the designs become viable.
(8) To organize or contribute to symposiums, workshops or conferences, to provide an opportunity for networking and the sharing of ideas.
(9) To help communicate the vision of interstellar flight to the public, media, industry and government through the technical programs or the arts.
(10) To provide for a co-operative relationship between the institute and similar organizations, aligning programs where appropriate and seeking to work towards shared ambitions.
(11) To garner investment into the community, including financial. This can then be used for the provision of salaries and grant awards which is needed if we are to create a new industry.
Our view is that an interstellar-capable society can be established by the end of this century. What does this mean? It does not mean that by the year 2100 Starships will be travelling regularly between stars. What it means is that as a society, we will have the science knowledge, public understanding and support, political and economic provision, to begin a program for the first human mission, using the capabilities that exist at that time. That said, we believe it is quite plausible to send uncrewed robotic ambassadors towards the stars in the coming decades and the Institute will work towards that goal as a key mission and technology demonstration. We will focus on interstellar precursor missions first, but then later move towards full interstellar missions as our capability increases.
The motto of the Institute for Interstellar Studies is “Scientia ad sidera” or “Knowledge to the Stars”, because we believe in the determination of a scientifically informed strategic and technological roadmap in our planning. If people believe that what we are doing has merit, then we invite you to join with the Institute in some capacity. We are a young organization, and the world’s first ever dedicated interstellar research institute, founded in August 2012. But we are optimistically hopefully that by working together, we can bring to fruition the fulfilment of a dream and send humans to the system of another star. I challenge everyone in the interstellar community, and anyone with an interest in moving the interstellar agenda forward, to join in shared friendship and cooperation, so that we may work together towards the same aim – catalysing an interstellar society.
The web site for the Institute for Interstellar Studies can be found here: http://www.i4is.org/
The Institute’s blog page is located on our knowledge capture web site, The Interstellar Index, and can be found here: http://www.interstellarindex.com/blog/
Interested members who wish to contact the Institute can email us on: