Nuclear rocket designs are hardly new. In fact, it was clear as early as the 1950s that conventional chemical rocketry was inefficient, and programs like Project Rover, set up to study the use of nuclear reactors to heat liquid hydrogen for propulsion, aimed at the kind of rockets that could get us beyond the Moon and on to Mars. The NERVA rocket technology (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) that grew out of all this showed great promise but ran afoul of political and economic issues even as the last Apollo missions were canceled. Nor is the public wariness of nuclear methods likely to vanish soon, yet another hurdle for future ideas.

But making people aware of what has done and what could be done is good practice, as Kenneth Chang does by example in his recent piece on the 100 Year Starship Symposium, which bears the optimistic title Not Such a Stretch to Reach for the Stars. In interstellar terms, propulsion is the biggest problem of all. Chang’s article suggests a pathway through conventional rocketry and into nuclear-thermal designs, with reference along the way to using nuclear engines to generate the electrical fields that power up an ion engine. The goal on this pathway is fusion, though Chang admits no one has yet built an energy-producing fusion reactor.

The Daedalus concept was fusion-based, and the ongoing Icarus project that followed is now examining Daedalus to note the effect of thirty years of new technology. But Chang has also talked to James Benford, whose interest in laser and microwave beaming remains strong. Leave the propellant behind and you’ve maximized payload, in addition to working with known physics and apparently achievable engineering. And there continue to be startling new concepts like those of Joseph Breeden, who finds a more extreme way to create an engineless vehicle:

From his doctoral thesis, Dr. Breeden remembered that in a chaotic gravitational dance, stars are sometimes ejected at high speeds. The same effect, he believes, could propel starships.

First, find an asteroid in an elliptical orbit that passes close to the Sun. Second, put a starship in orbit around the asteroid. If the asteroid could be captured into a new orbit that clings close to the Sun, the starship would be flung on an interstellar trajectory, perhaps up to a tenth of the speed of light.

“The chaotic dynamics of those two allow all the energy of one to be transferred to the other,” said Dr. Breeden, who came toting copies of a paper describing the technique. “It’s a unique type of gravity assist.”

What I call the ‘joy of extreme possibility’ has animated interstellar studies since the days of Robert Forward. It works like this: We know the distances between the stars are so vast as to dwarf the imagination. Indeed, most people have no notion of them, seeing an interstellar mission as merely a next step once we have explored the outer system, a kind of juiced-up Voyager. The scientists and engineers who work on these matters, knowing better, realize how far beyond our current technologies these journeys really are. So they’re not afraid to speculate even at the absolute far end of the plausible (and often beyond that). Work your way through interstellar papers like these and you pick up an infectious, jazzy brainstorming. It’s the kind of mental riffing on an idea that a John Coltrane or a McCoy Tyner does with a musical theme.

And by the way, Chang is careful to get those distances across to readers. I’m always interested in homely comparisons because you can use them to boggle audience minds when speaking about interstellar flight. This is useful, because a boggled mind often becomes a curious one, and while you can never predict these things, occasionally interstellar studies gain a new adherent. Chang cites a Richard Obousy analogy: If the Earth were Orlando and Alpha Centauri were in Los Angeles, then the Voyager spacecraft would have traveled but a single mile.

Even after all these years, that one still boggles my own mind. Chang again:

Another way of looking at the challenge is that in 10,000 years, the speed of humans has jumped by a factor of about 10,000, from a stroll (2.6 m.p.h.) to the Apollo astronauts’ return from the Moon (26,000 m.p.h.). Reaching the nearest stars in reasonable time — decades, not centuries — would require a velocity jump of another factor of 10,000.

It’s good to see the 100 Year Starship Study steadily percolating in the news. Maybe one day these concepts will not seem as esoteric as they do today. I note as I write this, for example, that my word processor flags the word ‘starship’ as a spelling error. We need to set deeper roots into the culture than that. We can start by doing what conference organizer David Neyland told Chang he wants to do, to establish a bar high enough that people “will actually go start tackling some of these really hard problems.” Of course, the real bar is set by nature, and it’s the highest bar we as a species have faced in terms of travel times and distance. But the joy of extreme possibility only ignites the spirit when everything is on the table and the challenge is immense.