Why think seriously about mounting an effort to reach the stars? In yesterday’s New York Times, Dennis Overbye runs through some of the basic drivers:

  • The discovery of a habitable planet around a nearby star would create intense interest in sending a probe or, depending on how technology develops, mounting an expedition
  • The demands of human nature include a basic restlessness that has always impelled us to explore
  • The danger of a future impact from an asteroid or other space debris will force us to think not only about how to mitigate the threat, but also about a ‘backup’ plan for humanity

The article is worth looking at for the gorgeous Adrian Mann illustration alone — it shows a future starship on a ‘shakeout’ cruise near Jupiter. Overbye then goes on to discuss the 100 Year Starship Study and its upcoming symposium, with plentiful references to Project Icarus and the Tau Zero Foundation. It’s good to see the press continuing to focus on the real goals of the 100 Year Starship Study, given that Jill Tarter (SETI Institute) is quoted in the article as saying that some of the proposals for talks she has seen have been a ‘mixed bag.’ And she adds “Maybe you have to be a little bit crazy to think about this seriously.”

Or maybe not. Overbye refers to possibilities that are well within the realm of known physics even while they challenge (monumentally) our current engineering skills. I was glad to see reference, for example, to the kind of enormous solar sails that, boosted with a close pass by the Sun and made of incredibly thin and reflective materials, could get us to the Alpha Centauri system in a millennium. And although he isn’t mentioned by name in the article, Robert Forward’s ideas on ‘lightsails’ or ‘photon sails’ that would be pushed by laser or microwaves make an appearance, as do ion drives. Forward envisioned cutting the travel time to decades.

All of this means that propulsion systems galore must be on the table if we are looking toward a starship launch that might not occur in this century. Overbye refers to Marc Millis’ term ‘incessant obsolescence’ in terms of how technology may change as we pursue these studies, but what Millis really means by the term is the possibility that a starship launched with the fastest technologies of its day might eventually be caught by a faster one launched much later, leading to real questions about how long to wait before launching anything. It’s interesting to note that Andrew Kennedy, who has written about what he calls the ‘wait equation,’ will be a speaker at the upcoming 100 Year Starship Study symposium to be held in Orlando at the end of September.

“The agenda ranges far beyond rocket technology to include such topics as legal, social and economic considerations of interstellar migration, philosophical and religious concerns, where to go and — perhaps most important — how to inspire the public to support this very expensive vision,” writes Overbye, who calls the study “perhaps the ultimate startup opportunity.” Indeed, and the multi-disciplinary approach demanded by the challenge of starflight may be one of its greatest attractions. It forces us to acknowledge that if we are seriously talking about sending humans on what could be generations-long journeys, our investigations have to range far beyond propulsion into fields like biology, environmental science, sociology and psychology.

David Neyland (director of tactical technology for DARPA, and the man behind the 100 Year Starship Study) likes to talk about the tools we have now vs. our theoretical knowledge to develop them further. Would Einstein and Marconi have been able to come up with communications devices like cellphones if asked to sketch out a way for people to stay in touch in 1910? They surely had the scientific knowledge but were not at a position to foresee the engineering. The challenge of starship thinking is even greater. We don’t know for sure that we’re asking the right questions, making the need for divergent voices at the symposium that much greater.

But I like what Kelvin Long, founder of Project Icarus, has to say. “A lot of us are quite young. We grew up hearing about the Apollo program,” he said. “We want to be part of a significant journey. We personally think we may be doing something important, driving humanity out to the stars.”

If you’re intrigued by the ‘wait equation,’ see Kennedy, “Interstellar Travel: The Wait Calculation and the Incentive Trap of Progress,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society Vol. 59, No. 7 (July, 2006), pp. 239-247.