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.