Centauri Dreams defers to no one in admiration of Project Daedalus, the 1970s-era starship design that emerged from the British Interplanetary Society. It’s a pleasure to see continuing interest in the craft, as witness Alan Bellows’ backgrounder about it on the Damn Interesting site. Daedalus was the first serious and thorough design for a starship, a robotic interstellar probe that would reach Barnard’s Star in about fifty years, moving at twelve percent of the speed of light.
Be sure to check the Bellows story for the overview. But let me fill in a little more background: The British Interplanetary Society, founded in 1933, used to meet regularly at London’s Mason’s Arms pub on Maddox Street, a setting that Arthur C. Clarke readers may recognize from his later collection Tales from the White Hart. Daedalus was designed by about a dozen scientists and engineers, many of its sessions occurring in pubs and similar venues. When I talked to Geoffrey Landis about Daedalus some years back, he was as bemused about this as I was, saying “Imagine designing a starship while you’re sitting around in a bar. I mean, that’s just an incredibly ballsy thing to do!”
So I always think about Clarke’s book and wonderful evenings in similar pubs in London when I hear about Daedalus. Those long bar sessions in the 70’s produced extraordinary work, including a propulsion system that would provide thrust for a staggering four continuous years using fifty billion pellets of deuterium and helium-3, burning 250 of them every second in its combustion chambers. Daedalus was gigantic in every dimension, including the demands it placed upon the society that built it. The project, said the BIS final report, “… fits naturally into the context of a solar system-wide society making intelligent use of its resources, rather than a heroic effort on the part of a planet-bound civilization.”
Which is why industrializing the Solar System itself seems a prerequisite. When we do fly our first interstellar probes, they’ll doubtless be of different design that Daedalus, but they’ll still take advantage of the good work that went into its concept. Project Daedalus: The Final Report on the BIS Starship Study, edited by Anthony Martin, was published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 1978 and is thus hard to come by. My own dog-eared copy is the result of a marathon copying session at a nearby engineering library, carefully spreading the oversized JBIS pages to get a good image while not hurting the tight binding of the old volumes.
Interesting stuff? You bet. I’m always referring to this 1 1/2-inch stack of printouts. The introductory page quotes Immanuel Kant: “On the basis of a slight assumption I have undertaken a dangerous journey, and I already see the promontories of new lands. Those people who have the resolution to set forth on this undertaking will enter these lands and have the pleasure of designating them with their very own names” (from Kant’s Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven, 1755). Those ‘new lands’ include designing a shield for interstellar dust, evaluating nearby stars for planetary systems, creating robotic systems for onboard maintenance and a communications capability to bring the data home.
I count twenty-one papers in all, most of them highly technical yet utterly absorbing even today. As to Barnard’s Star, here’s a link to a story in these pages that covers Peter Van de Kamp’s apparent detection of planets around it, which led to the BIS’ interest in the star as a destination for Daedalus. Turns out the data were flawed, but we still can’t rule out planets below current detection limits. And it’s intriguing that red dwarfs like this one have climbed well up the scale of interest when it comes to possible rocky worlds in habitable zones.
I hope someone will publish a new edition of the Final Report because my photocopies are getting pretty ragged, not to mention well marked up with notes. It would be a nice testament to a dramatic and visionary idea carried out by people who wanted to produce realistic designs using near-term technology. Talk about stretching the limits of the possible. And as Geoffrey Landis notes, they did it in a pub!
Addendum: Tibor Pacher reports that the British Interplanetary Society makes the Daedalus Final Report available on CD. This is good news indeed. Thanks, Tibor!