Tau Zero founder Marc Millis and I will be among those interviewed on the upcoming History Channel show Star Trek: Secrets of the Universe, which will air this Wednesday at 10 PM Eastern US time (0200 UTC on Thursday). Being a part of this production was great fun, especially since it meant flying out to Oakland for a visit with my son Miles, who is now actively involved in interstellar matters. On long car trips when he was a boy, I would have Miles read Heinlein, Andre Norton and the like aloud while I drove — terrific memories — so you can imagine what a kick it is to see him as mesmerized by the human future in space as I am.
The idea of getting a payload to another star seemed closer in the days of those car trips. I’m sure that’s because we were coming off the successful Apollo program and assumed that a similarly directed effort could push us rapidly to the edge of the Solar System and beyond. It was in 1975, the year of the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project (the last time an Apollo flew) that Robert Forward introduced a singularly aggressive idea, an interstellar roadmap that he presented to the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications of the House Committee on Science and Technology, which had requested proposals outlining possible future steps in space.
Forward called the proposal “A National Space Program for Interstellar Exploration.” Although it was published as a House document, it never received much by way of media attention and was never up for consideration by Congress. It says something about both Forward and the optimism of at least some in the space community that his proposal was so far-reaching. Consider this excerpt:
A national space program for interstellar exploration is proposed. The program envisions the launch of automated interstellar probes to nearby stellar systems around the turn of the century, with manned exploration commencing 25 years later. The program starts with a 15-year period of mission definition studies, automated probe payload definition studies, and development efforts on critical technology areas. The funding required during this initial phase of the program would be a few million dollars a year. As the automated probe design is finalized, work on the design and feasibility testing of ultra-high-velocity propulsion systems would be initiated.
Image: Interstellar theorist Robert Forward, wearing one of his trademark vests. Credit: UAH Library Robert L. Forward Collection.
Let’s pause there for a moment to consider that Forward was talking about the first launch of an automated interstellar probe somewhere around the year 2000, with the first manned missions beginning in 2025. The date reminds me of my friend Tibor Pacher, who heads up the Faces from Earth project, and who challenged me to take him up on our interstellar bet, which you can read about on the Long Bets site. The prediction is that ‘the first true interstellar mission, targeted at the closest star to the Sun or even farther, will be launched before or on December 6, 2025…’ Tibor supports that statement while I challenge it, but either way a good cause wins: If I’m right, the Tau Zero Foundation collects our $1000; if Tibor wins, it goes to SOS-Kinderdorf International, a charity dedicated to orphaned and abandoned children.
But back to Forward in Congress. Imagine the reaction of lawmakers reading on in the scientist’s proposal:
Five possibilities for interstellar propulsion systems are discussed that are based on 10- to 30 year projections of present-day technology development programs in controlled nuclear fusion, elementary particle physics, high-power lasers, and thermonuclear explosives. Annual funding for this phase of the program would climb into the multibillion dollar level to peak around 2000 AD with the launch of a number of automated interstellar probes to carry out an initial exploration of the nearest stellar systems.
And with the ‘damn the torpedoes’ optimism that always marked Bob Forward, he finishes this introduction with:
Development of man-rated propulsion systems would continue for 20 years while awaiting the return of the automated probe data. Assuming positive returns from the probes, a manned exploration starship would be launched in 2025 AD, arriving at Alpha Centauri 10 to 20 years later.
Now that’s moving — Alpha Centauri in 10 years would have to mean you’re getting pretty close to 50 percent of lightspeed at cruise, taking into account the necessary deceleration upon arrival. Forward’s own work would later include an Epsilon Eridani mission concept using a laser-beamed lightsail that would reach 30 percent of lightspeed, one that would be built in a ‘staged’ configuration so as to allow not only deceleration into the Epsilon Eridani system but eventual crew return to Earth. So the man thought big and his ideas were as bold as they come.
Michael Michaud, who would have been developing his ideas at roughly the same time, published a lengthy plan for moving out into the Solar System and beyond to the nearest stars in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 1977, a program I want to talk about soon. But first, we need to address a slightly earlier program for interstellar flight written by G. Harry Stine and published in the science fiction magazine Analog in 1973. Stine not only had big ambitions, but he thought he knew just the kind of starship to propose for the job. We’ll talk about Stine’s “A Program for Interstellar Flight” tomorrow.
Forward’s presentation to Congress can be found in “A National Space Program for Interstellar Exploration,” Future Space Programs 1975, vol. VI, Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications, Committee on Science and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, Serial M, 94th Congress (September, 1975).