We become so bedazzled by the assumptions of our time that we can forget how things looked in different eras. 1973 wasn’t all that many years ago in the cosmic scheme of things, but the early ‘70s were a time of surprising optimism when it came to our future in space. As we saw yesterday, physicist Robert Forward laid out a plan for interstellar expansion to a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1975, even as a thoughtful Michael Michaud worked out his own concepts in a series of papers in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. But nudging ahead of both men by a few years was G. Harry Stine.
Already making a name for himself as a science fiction writer under the pseudonym Lee Correy, Stine was a futuristic thinker who fired readers’ imaginations with a cover article in the October, 1973 Analog, an issue whose artwork I reproduce here. Rick Sternbach’s cover caught my eye when I first saw this issue while toiling as a grad student that year, but it was the Stine article, “A Program for Star Flight,” that made me move the magazine to the top of my ‘must read’ list, even though I had little time for reading outside my class work.
Stine wanted to examine starflight by starting with “what we know now or with things that are amenable to engineering development.” This is Bob Forward’s spirit being channeled by Harry Stine, a look for solutions within known physics that pushed engineering as hard as it could be pushed, assuming that future developments would allow the production of the huge amounts of energy demanded. Stine didn’t want to pick up science fiction tropes he considered over the top, like faster-than-light travel or cryo-preservation. He thought in terms of huge ships and trips that lasted for generations.
In most respects, we’re still in the Stine era, in the sense that while we’ve learned a great deal about the stars around us and have made huge advances in computer technology, our basic methods of reaching space — chemical rocketry — are still in place despite the intervening 40 years. Project Icarus exists partly to look at what changes have occurred in this period to make starflight a more practical proposition, but it’s a daunting fact that we’re still trying to light fusion in a sustainable and productive way and we certainly don’t have it yet for propulsion.
Image: Rick Sternbach’s cover art depicting an Enzmann starship, as discussed in Harry Stine’s article.
But it’s interesting to look at Stine in another way. For in this article he lays out a basic justification for going to the stars that emerged at a time when the Apollo program had triggered serious blowback from those who wanted all our resources to be applied to Earth’s problems first. So let’s look at Stine’s list and see how his own rationale for starflight stands up from our vantage point today. I’ll go through all eight of his points in the order presented.
- Species survival. Stine worried about two things, the most likely being that through our own actions, we might destroy our ecosystem and have to find a new home. The other possibility was that the Sun might show signs of becoming unstable. Today we’d relegate that latter point to a distant future, one far enough out (at least a billion years) that it wouldn’t demand action in the near future. And more than solar instability, we’d be worried about the Sun simply playing out its normal life sequence, warming and eventually swelling into a red giant rather than going nova. On the question of planetary protection from space debris as a motivator for deep space technologies, Stine has no comment.
- Information. Just before the dawn of the personal computer revolution, Stine believed that information was the key to survival, and that the more of it we had, the better able we would be to thrive as a culture. I tend to think in terms of information being its own reward, with the quest for knowledge being simply hard-wired into our species, but Stine was a more hard-headed individual who saw accumulating data as an insurance policy against future catastrophe.
- Life search. Stine’s view was that our exploration of the Solar System might reveal life, and that this would be a driver for making us want to search around other stars. Conversely, finding no life might equally become a driver as we looked for further evidence that we were or were not alone. Today we still have no proof of life elsewhere in the Solar System, but we certainly have more targets than Stine did — beyond Mars, we’re looking at Enceladus, Titan, Europa, and even distant Triton, among other possibilities — and a growing understanding that life may be able to emerge in conditions that in Stine’s day would have seemed impossible.
- Intelligence search. Still no confirmed signal from SETI, and I suspect that Stine would have thought one was likely by now. But he opines that it may take going out to the stars and looking to discover whether or now other civilizations exist. Remember, too, that his was a time without the proliferating population of exoplanets we’re finding with our new tools and techniques, one in which there was still some thought that sending a probe was the only way to observe the planets around other stars. Today we’re expanding SETI to include searches for large-scale engineering (Dyson spheres and more) and each day seems to bring a new exoplanet discovery.
- Lebensraum. Here it’s hard to say whether Stine sees a crowded and choked Earth getting population relief from starflight — an unlikely scenario — or whether he means that future colonists will have all the room they could imagine for future growth. The latter is obviously true and we can envision substantial settlements moving into the outer system and beyond, but my assumption is that problems of overcrowding on Earth will demand Earth-based solutions.
- Sociological research. I like this one because Stine is envisioning generation ships with thousands of inhabitants and the ‘laboratories’ of social change they will provide. The point is well-taken, for long before we think about human colonists to the stars we may be looking at large space colonies in artificial habitats. The more of these that appear the greater the spread of human interactions in settings that will become isolated as they move further from the Sun.
- Ideological reasons. Harking back to the settlement of New England, Stine notes that people are willing to endure hardships to support their various ideologies. Viable colonies in space and, eventually, generation ship possibilities will become a powerful inducement for people to follow their own notions and establish communities that exemplify them.
- Economics. Here I can imagine several researchers I know who’ve looked hard at the cost of interstellar travel choking — aren’t we talking about trillions of dollars at this point to send spacecraft to the stars? Well, there are somewhat cheaper alternatives, and of course we’re looking for technology advances that can lower the astonishing cost of the energy we’ll need. But when Stine wrote, the profit motive keyed off the history of exploration on our planet and seemed a rational possibility. Today we’d say that turning a profit on an interstellar voyage is perhaps the least likely reason for constructing a starship.
Here’s Stine’s take on the eight items:
These are general reasons, and I won’t attempt to assign priorities to them or even try to guess which one, if any, will be the final justification used. I refuse to do this because I have a built-in cultural bias. I am an American who speaks and thinks in the English language and who has an Anglo-Hellenic cultural heritage. Star flight may be accomplished by another culture for reasons that would seem absurd to Americans. In other words, don’t assume that star flight won’t be done because we have lost our nerve, drive, or ambition — because you are speaking strictly of our culture. When it comes time to go, those who man the starships may be from a renascent culture on the make with fire in their guts.
My own take on Stine’s list is that the earlier items are the main drivers we can identify with today. I’ve mentioned the quest for knowledge for its own sake, a seemingly essential component of human nature. But that needs coupling with species survival. Stine doesn’t go into the matter but I’ve advocated in these pages that building our space infrastructure as a means of planetary protection will inevitably lead to deep space technologies that will boost our expansion beyond the Solar System. If so, our exoplanet discoveries — and particularly finding biomarkers in exoplanet atmospheres, which we may do within a matter of decades — would constitute a compelling reason to put a payload around another star to continue the investigation up close.