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Initial Thoughts on the Starship Symposium

I’m just back from the 100 Year Starship Symposium. The thoughts below were written yesterday evening (the 2nd), just after the event ended.

It’s a lovely evening here in Orlando, one I’m enjoying while sitting out in front of the Hilton waiting for my taxi. I got a chuckle out of the audience at my talk at the 100 Year Starship Symposium when I mentioned something that is completely true: I’m actually a very retro kind of guy. Sure, starships are a passion, but I also restore old fountain pens, love film noir, and as I told the audience, chose an overnight sleeper train to come to Florida in rather than an aircraft.

They enjoyed the observation, probably because we’re all an odd mix of personally defined and often contradictory impulses. But as I soak up this gorgeous Florida evening, I’m feeling a profound singleness of purpose. To begin with, it’s clear to me that writing about the starship conference won’t be a matter of a single Centauri Dreams entry but rather a series of thoughts and recollections that will be scattered through any number of future articles. The experience was obviously memorable, the largest conference devoted to interstellar flight that I could have imagined, and as David Neyland, its organizer, told me, it happened because so many people came from so far in the service of a numbingly futuristic idea.

People like my friend Adam Crowl, who came all the way from Brisbane, Australia, and with whom I enjoyed good conversation throughout the event. People like Kelvin Long, the man whose inspiration put Icarus into operation, who came with fellow Icarus people like Pat Galea and Rob Swinney from the UK and Andreas Tziolas from Alaska. Marc Millis and I found an excellent Italian restaurant, and the next night I had a wonderful dinner conversation with Greg Benford over salmon and a superb Carneros Pinot Noir (thanks Al Jackson for picking up the wine tab!). I enjoyed my chats with Jim Benford as well, and it was great to see Richard Obousy, who came over from Texas. Special thanks to the many Centauri Dreams readers who introduced themselves as I walked between sessions.

If I had one criticism of what happened here, it’s that there were so many good papers to listen to, so many good people to hear, that the multi-track structure made it impossible to do everything I would have wanted to do. Michael Michaud’s paper on the long term implications of interstellar flight was a priority for me, but I had also committed to a number of readers that I would cover one of the breakthrough propulsion sessions — I was using Twitter to do a bit of live ‘micro-blogging’ — and I not only missed Michael’s talk, but found myself sitting on the floor typing, the session being completely packed as Marc Millis, Jordan Maclay, Eric Davis and Sonny White talked space drives and Alcubierre theory.

OK, you choose. Which of these would you go to and which would you regret missing:

  • “A Review of Interstellar Starship Design” – Richard Obousy (Icarus Interstellar)
  • “Light Sailing to the Stars” – Greg Matloff (New York City College of Technology)
  • “Mass Beam Propulsion: An Overview” – Gerald Nordley
  • Panel: “Structuring the 100 Year Starship” – Mae Jemison, moderator (The Jemison Group)
  • “Making Aliens” – Athena Andreadis
  • “Star Probes and ET Intelligence” – Stephen Baxter

It wasn’t easy, and it was like that all the time.

On the last day, we had a late meeting among Tau Zero and Icarus people and by the time we finished, almost everyone had left the conference facility. The venue was suddenly deserted and quiet, with that eerie sense you get when an enormous structure, seemingly at once, becomes empty. We found unused symposium programs and posters leaning up against a table. Think about this, I joked. We could collect all these and in twenty years, who knows what they would bring on eBay! We were laughing about this but I did cast a wistful glance back. Maybe we really should have picked the extras up…

Anyway, this was really a four-day conference packed into the equivalent of two days, so we were all running from paper to paper, session to session, with little time for breaks and even less time for meals until the day was over. A new meme was emerging – the ‘interstellar buzz’ – and it was palpable. I think everyone was as jazzed as I was about the fact that this meeting was even happening. How often do I get to chat with Jill Tarter in the elevator, catch up on the latest from my friend Claudio Maccone or have dinner conversation with John Cramer and Marc Millis talking about the CERN neutrino results?

Not that I was doing the talking in that conversation — I’m a writer, not a scientist, and I was in Orlando to keep learning as much as I could about a topic that’s so multi-faceted and rich that every new nugget uncovered seems to expose an even deeper vein of ore. So there was much listening to be done, banking on the willingness of scientist after scientist to share ideas and point me in the direction of further sources.

We managed plenty of Tau Zero and Icarus business as well, so in the rare free time discussions continued. The Icarus team was all over the place, and I quickly learned that if I stood even for a moment at the Tau Zero table, I would get pulled into a conversation related to one or the other (as well as my Tau Zero duties, I serve as a consultant for Icarus). My sense is that the starship conference is getting lots of pop from the media, which leads to the question of how long the interstellar buzz can be maintained. Time will tell, but my major goal long-term is to see the public getting back into the space game in terms of enthusiasm and interest, and turning Apollo-like passions toward the interstellar deep.

Can that happen? Maybe some day, and I’m not so unrealistic as to expect that a single symposium can make it happen overnight. But Dave Neyland had the right idea when he got DARPA into this game, because the DARPA imprimatur brought an intensity of focus that the community had been lacking. People who work on these topics invariably do so in their spare time. They’re separated not only by distance but the pressures of work and only occasionally see each other at conferences. An event like this can reveal how concentrated is their interest and how wide their potential audience, as long as we can build on what happened here.

I ran into a friend as I was waiting for my taxi who told me the whole thing was making him emotional, and I had something of the same reaction. What has to be said about many of the people working in this area is that they do it not only because of the utter fascination of the challenge, but because getting to the stars is a multi-generational quest for them, one they generally (though not universally) assume will not be achieved in their lifetimes, but one they believe with a passion their descendants will experience. And it is with a deep sense of commitment that they come forward to offer up their expertise for this gift to an unknowable futurity.

Emotional? Sure. Interstellar flight has long been talked about and it fills the pages of science fiction, but to see some of the best minds in a host of disciplines attacking it as a scientific problem and actually planning to create an organization that can last long enough to bring it seriously closer is a powerful experience. I’m now writing this in Orlando’s train station, having caught that taxi and resumed my work afterwards, and the sense that this was a once in a lifetime event just won’t go away. We’ll have other interstellar gatherings, but this one feels like a game-changer, one we’ll be talking about in various ways for a long time.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Eniac October 11, 2011, 21:36

    Besides, is it really quite trivial to create normal gravity in a space habitat. Tie two together with a string and rotate them. No more worry about the feasibility of reproduction, even if it were justified.

  • Athena Andreadis October 12, 2011, 13:16

    Sean, you’re most welcome. Of course there will be planets with near-earth gravity. But there will be no twin earth — the list of specifics is endless — and we evolved on this one. So if we do inhabit other planets, we’ll have to do the same there. This is where genetic engineering enters the picture, not as the dubious enhancements touted by the transhumanists but as a survival mechanism.

    Andreas, “Just add an artificial chromosome…”, “Just tether two habitats…”– problem X solved… not. Embryos fail to form past a certain stage in reduced gravity. We don’t yet know what the cutoff value is. That’s beyond the other well-known physiological issues.

  • Sean M. Brooks October 13, 2011, 3:25

    Dear Professor Andreadis:

    Thanks again for responding. Of course I agree planets of other stars with near Earth normal gravity will have many difference from our home world. I don’t expect other planets to be PERFECTLY terrestroid. I do argue that the genius of mankind at its best, in this respect, lies in adapting and changing the world around him to suit his needs and wishes.

    Which means, if mankind ever settles other worlds orbiting other stars, even the most terrestroid will have deficiencies. A few simple examples being how other planets may lack some of the vitamins we need for good health or have edible foods. It is my belief that future colonists will solve such problems by introducing Earth crops and meat animals.

    Naturally, this would apply only to worlds with water and oxygen atmospheres.

    Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  • Eniac October 14, 2011, 0:11

    Athena, embryos may do whatever in low gravity. What I was saying was that it is well within our ability to design space habitats in such a way that there will be full gravity, and therefore no problems with low gravity. You have not said what you do not like about this idea, and I think you ought to before you dismiss it so casually.

    “Artificial chromosome?” What artificial chromosome?

    I do not want to delve too deeply into the science of developmental biology and microgravity, but a cursory look at Wikipedia confirms my suspicion that your categorical statements about it may need some qualification.

    You: “Embryos fail to form past a certain stage in reduced gravity.”
    They: “fetus developed properly”, “both groups resulted in healthy mice”

    Perhaps I misunderstand. Here is the full paragraph with references to be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_in_space :

    Studies conducted on reproduction of mammals in microgravity include experiments with rats. Although the fetus developed properly, the rats that developed in microgravity lacked the ability to right themselves.[7] Another study examined mouse embryo fertilization in microgravity. Although both groups resulted in healthy mice, the authors noted that the growth rate was slower for the embryos fertilized in microgravity than for those in normal gravity.[8]

    Some behavioral problems, yes, but with statistical caveats. “Fail to form” – not.

    I am aware that you know this area of literature much better than me, as it is right up your alley. You will be able to easily dismiss the above statements and associated references on the basis of your decades of experience as a bench scientist. Also, the authors are likely Anglo-Saxon males, which should discredit them right there.

  • Christopher Phoenix October 29, 2011, 20:12

    Hello, Eniac, Athena Andreadis, Sean M. Brooks….

    Microgravity has quite a bit of health issues for fully developed humans, and radiation exposure can be quite dangerous.

    However, the only way to fully understand the risks is to perform experiments on animals like rats, with one set of subjects in space, ground based controls, and some subject in a 1-g environment in space. Until then, all this discussion is of no more use than predictions that astronauts will be unable to eat, drink, or go to the bathroom in microgravity and that they will go insane in the endless fall of orbit.

    I’m sure that 5-year old children hanging upside down off the monkey bars could have corrected the scientists on the assumption that you can’t swallow without gravity to help the food down… It is only hardheaded professionals with decades of experience as bench scientists that are dumbfounded at this.

    The nearby planets and moons are unsuitable for colonization unless we build colony domes. On Mars and the Moon, there is less gravity than we are used to. In the old SF novels, lunar humans developed a finer bone structure and were often unable to visit Earth. It is also possible to live in a large space station or habitat in free space.

    If we want Earth-like planets to settle, we will need fast, affordable star travel. If we had drives that allow spaceships to approach the speed of light, we could travel to these Earth-like planets with very short flight times.

    People who settle on another Earth-like planet will have to adapt to certain difference in their new environment. If the planet is very similar to Earth- similar gravity, oxygen-rich atmosphere, water, etc., then these adaptions will be minimal. The settlers will adapt to a slightly different gravity. Their lung capacities will change slightly due to the different atmosphere. These acquired characteristics won’t make them much different form other humans. Just as different groups of humans adapted to their various environments, these settlers will adapt to their new home- with some help from technology.

    How much technology is required will depend on the nature of the planet. Life will likely be strange, living in an alien environment like that. An alien sun (or suns!!) will rise every day- but it will be a different day, too- either longer or shorter than an Earth standard day. Strange alien lifeforms might grow, crawl, run, hop, or flobber in your backyard. You will not be able to eat a local plants or animals- but that is the case in quite a few Earth locales. Just about every plant in the Amazon rainforest is full of poison. The settlers will doubtlessly introduce plants and animals from Earth. I know one thing- humans, and life in general, are adaptable. Someone will succeed in surviving in an alien environment.

    Of course, reaching these habitable planets in the first place is an issue. It might be that future future spacefaring humans live in vast habitats instead of colonizing terrestrial planets. Then again, terrestrial planets may be what lures us out into the grander interstellar arena in the first place.

    The real question may be one of propulsion vs. closed ecologies.

    Right now, no habitable or easily terraformed planet is within reach of any current or near-future propulsion technology. To colonize the planets we would need colony domes with some sort of self-sustaining life support system. To live in deep space, we need can cities with spin gravity and self-sustaining life support systems. To reach the stars with near future propulsion, our ships would have to fly for a century or more. This suggests a future where humans live in space habitats, like O’ neil colonies. Starships would multigenerational in such a future, the worldships talked about in earlier posts. When our descendants reached the stars, they might not even want to live on planets since they were already used to habitats.

    Lets say that UESA- United Earth Space Agency led a research program to develop the Quantum 1 Hyperlight drive- a reactionless drive that cancels out a spacecrafts mass within its field of influence and accelerates it to nearly the speed of light with an asymmetric gravitational field, allowing UESA spacecraft to fly at nearly the speed of light. The UESA could then build starships to travel to nearby or even faraway stars with a very short flight time. The UESA could then scout out nearby stars and find terrestrial planets that might be suitable for human settlement.

    This future is starkly different from the one that assumes that a closed life support systems will be developed but that propulsion systems will not improve dramatically. Note that no form of FTL exists in the UESA future- we don’t need to bust Einstein to have a fast journeys. Two words: time dilation. Any sort of FTL will speed things up even faster.

    Generally, propulsion will bring new targets within reach and capture peoples imagination more. Long duration spaceflight, especially multigenerational, has many issues and does not capture the imagination of the public as much. Who is going to be very interested in joining up for a voyage that won’t reach its destination for 500 years? The most plausible way for such a voyage to start is if an already existing space habitat chose to leave Sol.

    I think propulsion technologies will become more powerful in the future. Without propulsion, your closed ecology is going nowhere. Gas core atomic rockets, nuclear pulse drives, and eventually fusion rockets will allow for fast journeys to the other planets in our solar system. For fast voyages beyond our own solar system, however, simple Newtonian rockets are not enough. Some sort of advanced propulsion technology is needed- like space warp field generators or something equally exotic.

    As for the possibility that worlds around other stars might lack necessary vitamins and edible foods- remember to bring plenty of emergency rations, seeds to plant gardens, and trace-tabs. Trace-tabs are little pill-boxes astronauts bring along with them that contain hundreds of capsules containing vital vitamins and elements that might be lacking in alien environments.