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Interstellar Flight in the News

Tau Zero founder Marc Millis is interviewed by Bruce Dorminey in Forbes this week, the logical first question being where interstellar flight ranks on our list of priorities. A case can be made, after all, that we have yet to get humans beyond the Moon, and that while we have managed robotic missions to the outer planets, our technologies need development closer to home. Should a Moon base get our attention, or a Mars mission? Millis argues that pursuing next steps like these should be managed in tandem with the pursuit of more far-reaching advances that force us to look beyond existing methods.

Breakthroughs can change everything, and Millis is, after all, the former head of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project, which came to an abrupt end in 2002 when a congressional earmark to build a propulsion laboratory in Alabama — one that cost more than all NASA’s BPP research put together — scarfed up what could have been research money. And as Millis tells Dorminey, we’re left after all this with the continuing question of how to build a viable space effort using less than one half of one percent of our national resources.

While we ponder the near-term economics, a major driver for interstellar flight is to create a backup plan for our species in the event of a natural or man-made catastrophe that could threaten the Earth. But we don’t have to think far into the future to a time when a changing Sun will make conditions here unlivable. We can take solid steps toward creating a Solar System-wide infrastructure in the next several centuries, along the way developing the technologies for interstellar journeys. As Millis says:

The crux of the starflight benefit is developing such things as closed-loop life support that could also be applied for earth’s surface survival. The starflight option forces the need for that feature more than Moon and Mars colonies which can still depend on earth for their survival. But by also reaching for the more demanding requirements of starflight, we increase our chances of developing the independent survival capacity sooner. We don’t know our real expiration date. This is about hedging our bets for all the risks along the way.

I notice, too, that Marc was recently referenced on the Washington Post‘s WonkBlog, where Ezra Klein looks at his calculations on when humanity will have the ability to generate the energies needed for interstellar flight. The power needed to reach Alpha Centauri and decelerate is daunting and our energy production inches up but slowly:

For the past three decades, the total energy produced by the world has grown at a modest pace — around 1.9 percent per year. And humans have devoted just a tiny fraction of that to spaceflight. Unless either of those trends changes radically, Millis calculates, we won’t have the energy needed to launch an Alpha Centauri probe until sometime around the year 2463, at the earliest.

The good news, Millis notes, is that we could probably have a small colony ship that contained a bunch of humans ready even sooner, by the year 2200 or so. This ship couldn’t necessarily travel to other stars — it wouldn’t be nearly as fast as the Alpha Centauri probe — but it could pack about 500 people in, with supplies. This might be a good backup plan in case we end up trashing the Earth beyond repair and need to ensure the survival of the species.

More on all this in Marc’s paper “Energy, Incessant Obsolescence, and the First Interstellar Missions.” The paper was presented at the 61st International Astronautical Congress of the International Astronautical Federation, held in Prague in late 2010. Also note (see comments) that an updated version is available: Millis, “First Interstellar Missions, Considering Energy and Incessant Obsolescence,” JBIS 63, (2010), pp. 434-443.

100 Year Starship Call for Papers

Individuals and organizations from all disciplines are invited to participate in the upcoming public symposium of the 100 Year Starship organization, which published its call for papers yesterday. The theme of the session will be ‘Transition to Transformation: The Journey Begins.’ About the theme, the organization says this:

[It] acknowledges the accomplishments of space exploration to date and calls for authors to consider what changes are needed in how we currently envision and “do space” to truly push forward humanity’s journey to another star. Discussions this year should focus within each topical track on those transformative ideas and processes that make the leap to new breakthroughs. Papers accepted will be included in the 100YSS™ 2012 Symposium Proceedings and may be considered for publication in the coming Journal of Interstellar Studies.

Note that last item: I’ll have more for you about the Journal of Interstellar Studies as we move forward, but suffice it to say that the field has long needed its own journal, going back to the days when Robert Forward and Eugene Mallove were compiling interstellar bibliographies back in the early 1980s. The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society has done an outstanding job at keeping interstellar ideas current with its ‘red cover’ issues, but the hope here is that the new venue will offer still more opportunities for scientists — especially the upcoming generation of researchers now being drawn to interstellar studies — to interact with the community.

The tracks for the conference are laid out in the call for papers, ranging from ‘Time-Distance Solutions’ to ‘Becoming an Interstellar Civilization,’ with special sessions on topics like spinoffs and commercial applications. Note that there is a ‘No Paper, No Podium’ rule in effect, with papers due on August 17th. The abstracts themselves are due on July 8. The symposium is to be held from September 13-16 in Houston, TX (when the Texas heat should have nicely subsided), and there is a form on the 100 Year Starship site allowing you to be notified when registration opens. Last year’s session in Orlando is going to be a tough act to follow, but the list of topics promises lively discussion and the chance to mingle with the major players in this burgeoning field.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Marc G Millis June 19, 2012, 15:52

    An updated version of those arXiv predictions has been published:
    Millis (2010) First Interstellar Missions, Considering Energy and Incessant Obsolescence. JBIS, 63, pp. 434-443.

    Additional calculations suggest we now have enough energy to send about a 1-kg mass to Alpha Centauri with a 71 year transit, provided no rocket propellant is required.

    Also follow-up letters about that article have been published, where others question the accuracy of the predictions: in JBIS, 64, (5) pp. 175, and again in JBIS, 64, (9/10) pp. 343.

    I would like to stress that these predictions were intended to get a sense of the challenges we face instead of to support some preconceived notion. I did not know the answers until after I did the analysis. And, like so many predictions, the results will vary dramatically depending on one’s assumptions. Be alert, however, if other analyses seem to skew the results to give a desired answer instead of a clean, impartial assessment.

    For those who want a more optimistic prediction from me (more akin to sci-fi provocations), that’s been published too:
    Millis, A Future History. Centauri Dreams, 2012/Jan/03.

    Enjoy and let’s make a future worth living for!

  • James June 19, 2012, 17:15

    While I’m not a scientist I do take a lot of interest in science; particularly the exploration of space; and as a businessman/investor I see many commercial opportunities that are beginning to present themselves in space. We as a nation and species are doing ourselves a great disservice by not properly funding the exploring space, creating a cheap/reusable launch capability, and doing the things we need to do to become a space-fairing civilization.

    I believe the private sector with proper incentives from govt should take the lead in bringing about a real star trek of sorts by making humanity a interplanetary/space-faring civilization primarily because I think the private sector can do it much much cheaper and quicker than a very inefficient and bureaucratic govt can. Tax incentives offer a powerful means to which we can get the funds to explore space but in the near term cost the govt little to nothing.

    One plan I would like to see Congress pass is what I call Tax Freedom for Great Achievement Act. The bill would basically allow any company or person that performs or achieves a great act for humanity to become a tax-free company for a certain number of years. For example, the federal govt could say the first company that creates a permanent base on the Moon or creates a permanent base on Mars will not have to pay any corporate income taxes, capital gains taxes, or personal income taxes for the next 25 years. This would apply not to just the activity on the moon or Mars but on all worldwide income wherever it is derived. With this kind of powerful tax incentive dangling in front of companies what company would not say how can we get the Moon and get their cheap and make it self sustaining?

    As I mentioned to Paul in our email exchange on this subject, the beauty of this idea is that it cost the govt nothing until actual success is achieved. Unlike many of the tax credits you see today; ala energy tax credits, success is tied to actual success–without success there is no tax exemption and all the money they invested has been wasted. This means that in the early years while the company or person(s) are investing in a project to the moon the govt gets the added benefit of all the early investments all companies are spending who are competing for the incentive. Secondly, there will be a lot of competition and a lot of new money being invested to get to the moon, Mars, or whatever the other goals maybe. And thus the more invested, the more ideas tried, the more likely the goal will achieved. For the above mentioned reasons I believe this would be an easy sale on Capital Hill.

    To achieve Tax-Exempt status for 25 years I would like to see the following goals established:

    1. Establish a permanent and self sustaining colony on the Moon.
    2. Establish a permanent and self sustaining colony on Mars.
    3. The first man expedition to a nearby solar system.
    4. Reduces the cost of getting into space down to $50.00 per pound–current cost are $10,000.00 per pound. A lifetime exemption can be give to getting the cost under $1.00 per pound.
    5. Increasing the speed at which we can travel in space to 25% of the speed
    of light and then give another exemption of 25 years to anyone that increases the speed to 50% of the speed of light. Keep giving out 25 years
    exemption for each 25% increase in the speed of light. A lifetime exemption
    can be give to the first organization that exceeds the speed of light.
    6. A cure for cancer, diabetes, and other major medical illnesses, diseases, or disabilities. Note I said cure, not a treatment. Also, extending the average lifespan of people to over a 100 years.
    7. A lifetime tax exemption for the first organization that creates a new,
    clean, and extremely advance energy source. For example a viable fusion
    reactor to generate clean power, a viable anti-matter energy source, or some
    other advance or exotic, but safe, power source that hasn’t been conceived
    of as a new energy source can be give tax exempt status.
    8. Clean up all space junk in orbit around Earth to make it pristine once
    again and not cluttered with debris; and develop an ongoing business to keep
    it clean.

    Any company or person that reaches these goals theoretically set by Congress will not have to pay any taxes for 25 or more years. As I said before I think this would be a POWERFUL incentive that will help with the exploration of space.

    Another idea I read about and liked is called the Zero G, Zero Tax plan. This plan simply says that all activity that occurs in Zero G is tax free. In other words, any space launches, weather satellites, telecommunication, space tourism, mining, or manufacturing that is done in orbit around Earth will not be taxed on the portion of their income derived from being in orbit. Secondly, any investor who invest in the stocks or bonds of a company that does 90% or more of their business in orbit will not be taxed on any capital gains, dividend, or interest income.

    I think these two idea will bring about a profound increase in funding for space activity, bring the cost of access to space down dramatically, and bring about a revolution

  • A. A. Jackson June 19, 2012, 18:42

    “The symposium is to be held from September 13-16 in Houston, TX (when the Texas heat should have nicely subsided)”

    Uh …, I worked at Johnson Space Center for nearly 45 years. When I came here in 1966 , September would usually have two cold fronts in September, which really meant California weather. Alas the weather in September in the last 5 years has been more like August.
    If by some fluke of climate change we have our average high of 90 the relativity humidity may be 80 to 90% , giving a heat index of nearly 100.
    So come dressed for tropical weather!
    Plus we had Hurricane Ike in here in Sept in 2008.
    Might bring a hard hat.

  • Rob Henry June 19, 2012, 18:55

    James, I’m not sure about basing new breakthrough technology on private enterprise. To me Adams Smith’s system seems built to optimise what we have. To me it has only worked wonderfully at reducing costs once the stage is set for competition.

    Actually, I will go even further, and use the well known example of Xerox and PARC. I posit that Xerox would have been far better off without the financial drain PARC (or, rather, if it refocused PARC to further sorter term goals), even though human civilisation has gained greatly from it.

    The point I am trying to make is that I believe breakthroughs by the private sector to be largely due to mistaken cost benefit analyses or due to altruistic motive by management, and financial incentive do not work well to raise either of these possibilities.

  • Paul Gilster June 19, 2012, 20:02

    Al Jackson writes:

    Uh …, I worked at Johnson Space Center for nearly 45 years. When I came here in 1966 , September would usually have two cold fronts in September, which really meant California weather. Alas the weather in September in the last 5 years has been more like August.

    I figured I might have overstated (and by the way, Marc didn’t write that, I did), but I knew I could count on some people with Texas experience to set me straight ;-)

  • JohnHunt June 19, 2012, 21:21

    I’m very excited to learn about the new Journal of Interstellar Studies. It has been good to see this field really coming into its own. Paul, I think that your blog here has had a lot to do with that. It gave us a place to meet, share ideas, and think about where to go from here.

    > But by also reaching for the more demanding requirements of starflight, we increase our chances of developing the independent survival capacity sooner.

    I think that completely self-sustaining colonies can (and should) be established in the solar system without the development of an interstellar mission necessarily. With CHON available in decent quantities on both Mars and the Moon (the poles), producing one’s own life support is within reach. Metals and glass are also within reach by processing regolith/dirt which can also provide for radiation and micrometorite protection. The effects of hypogravity can be addressed by centrifuges. So long as we can get small but secure and growing colonies then, with information, the colonies should eventually be able to establish full civilizations.

    Still, I think that the core of the idea is right. The first interstellar mission should first be about the survival of the human species. But this only makes sense if we imagine a threat that would extend beyond where we can far more easily establish off-Earth colonies (e.g. the Moon and Mars). Since I believe we are steadily progressing towards four such possible scenarios, I think that we should strive for such a mission ASAP.

  • David June 19, 2012, 22:50

    Space X is confident it can send humans to Mars in 20 years. Hopefully its is here and asterid exploration that the Priave sector can do. I am happy to hand out contratc tz breaks etc.
    Its just another poorly sold sucess of Obama the commie(this is snark of course)
    Interstellar is a breakthrough areas that needs to be lead by the major Planteary Governments
    We have the energy for project Orion but at 3percent light it would be over a hundred years and of course it has propellant which is all blown up

  • James June 19, 2012, 23:31

    Rob Henry: Where do you think the govt gets the money to fund any project or any of its spending for that matter? It either a) taxes someone b) borrows it c) creates it out of then air. The govt has no money of its own, it takes it from the private sector. Even the projects that are govt funded are actually funded by the private sector.

    As you said the private sector optimizes what we have by reducing the cost and the private sector does that a lot better than the govt. Take the space shuttle, it cost I read $10,000.00 a pound to get it into space, with the total cost in excess of $200 billion for the shuttle program. Now imagine had an X-prize type thing had been setup with a $10 billion prize when it was first started to get the cost down $1,000.00 per pound. Access to space would be a lot cheaper now IMO. Did you know that one of Elon’s Musk rocket cost $50 million to build? Whereas just the launch platform of an Atlas rocket cost that amount? What a waste. The private sector does things better and cheaper.

    As to your statement about not being sure on basing breakthroughs on the private sector. I ask what is wrong with doing so? As I mentioned all govt research is ultimately funded by the private sector so why not let it be done privately with many competitors trying different ideas at once to reach the goal. Whats even better is only those organizations competing for the coveted tax-exempt status will be funding it and not all other taxpayers.

    I’m glad Xerox spent that money on PARC, it had a lot of innovative ideas and gadgets over the years that came out of that at no expense to anyone but the stockholders. Yes the shareholders maybe poorer but that was no fault of the researches or company for having PARC. That was the fault of senior executives at Xerox for not capitalizing on those ideas. There are a ton of ideas out there that one company or person may have created but did not take advantage of. That happens all the time and it should not be discouraged.

  • Kenneth Harmon June 20, 2012, 4:40

    Marc and All,

    As proponents of Interstellar Travel we really do have to start to address the issue of Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity projections (~2045 CE) at least in modified form since anything even remotely close to such a development becomes a complete “game changer” for Interstellar Travel. I must confess to being something of an Agnostic on Kurzweil’s Singularity, especially by 2045 CE. In essence, time will tell, but it should not be dismissed out of hand, especially since it would enable long range teleportation of Intelligence over very long distances by the end of the 21st Century if not before. This points to the fact that “Evolutionary Human Civilization” as early as the second half of the 21st Century may approach Interstellar Travel in ways completely different from anything we are able to even contemplate today circa the second decade of the 21st Century. In short, our current intelligence levels and knowledge levels really do limit us.

    If Humanity is significantly “juiced up” over the next ~9 decades or so either by somehow merging with AI that exceed Human Intelligence by many orders of magnitude, or more likely through simple Genetic Engineering of the Human Species to try and keep pace with slowly evolving AI, the major challenges of Interstellar Travel may become far more tractable. Put another way, today we may be more like the Wright Brothers trying to figure out ways to use the Technology in the Wright Flyer to try to get to Mars. Lets be honest, this like trying to develop a “Supersonic Horse” makes things seem almost impossible—and is also potentially “very bad for the Horse”!!

    While it may be a stretch to believe that even “Evolved Humans” that develop as a result of the merger of Humanity with AI will be able to travel 10’s of LYr’s from Sol/Terra by 2100 CE, a trip to Alpha Centauri does seem entirely feasible for such Civilization. In essence, even an order of magnitude less “Evolved Human Civilization” than that envisaged by Kurzweil would have “energy to burn”, and would be significantly beyond a Kardashiev Type 1 Civilization by 2100 CE, although not yet quite a Type-2 (Kurzweil believes we will be a Type-2 Civilization, i.e ~20,000 year development equivalent from early 2000’s by the end of the 21st Century).

    Provided there is something significant found around Alpha Centauri to go explore (like planets), why not aknowledge and be a little humble about our current limitations as a Species to do this given what we know today, while also coming up with a “stretch goal” should likely “game changers” develop that fundamentally redefine the entire problem by the end of the 21st Century. Let me posit that a viable “stretch goal” for Humanity (and a future Interstellar Development Institute modeled on the Howard Hughes Research Institute of old) should be to send 500 Human Intelligences or 500 “Evolved Human Intelligences” (Marc Millis, 500 Human Colonists) to Alpha Centauri, and get them there by 2100 CE. This seems like a prefectly reasonable “stretch goal” for Human Civilization given the continually accelerating technology curve posited by Kurzweil, and all of the things we do not know today.

    Perhaps, as many Technologists posit we will hit an S Curve in our Technology development by no later than 2050 CE, and Kurzweil’s continually accelerating Technology curve will come to an abrupt end, and than again it may not. It may also be that by circa 2050 CE we may have all the “game changer” technology we need to put Alpha Centauri squarely within “Human” reach. The point is we must begin to think completely outside the Box about getting to Alpha Centauri if there are interesting things to explore there, and by as early as 2100 CE.While very hard this at least is on the cusp of “doability” albeit with a few lucky breaks by the late 21st Century. Sadly, this is in contrast to an Interstellar Trip that would be 10-20 LY’s out unless of course Kurzweil is completely accurate about his version of the Singularity.

  • A. A. Jackson June 20, 2012, 7:58

    Opps, reading too fast, apologies to Marc.
    I note for visitors to Houston, don’t miss the Space Houston’s tour of JSC.
    Space Center is quite large , but I many of old MSC guys are not happy what it’s evolved into, but it’s to make a buck to stay open.
    Still the tram tour with visits to places like the original mission control are still good. And they will take you to the Smithsonian restored Saturn V , and it is original never flown Saturn V structure. You can also visit it for free if you want to spend more time with it.
    (Since 911 visitors can not roam JSC freely as they used to.)
    Dress lightly, Houston can be worse than Florida is the heat index is the wrong way, which it can be in September.

  • Astronist June 20, 2012, 8:15

    Paul and Marc: can I please submit a plea that we completely decouple the starship enterprise from vague speculative disasters such as “a natural or man-made catastrophe that could threaten the Earth”?

    While it may be tempting for us to try to gain public support by playing on popular doomsday fears, to my mind this is counterproductive. It evokes another popular meme to the effect that industrial humanity has wickedly trashed the Earth, and now wants to escape and go and trash other planets as well. I utterly abhor this charge! Growth in space (like growth on Earth before it) can only be part of an optimistic future in which everyone benefits. To suggest otherwise is to open the door to these malicious and untrue stereotypes of the evil capitalist-militarist-pollutionist-(space)colonialist, expressed vividly for example in the novel “Stark” (i.e. “Star Ark”), which the popular British comedian Ben Elton published in 1989 (and which was subsequently made into a TV series).

    If civilisation on Earth or elsewhere in the Solar System is threatened, then obviously we will go to its help. We are not going to run away and leave the rest of humanity in the lurch! A civilisation capable of building starships is of necessity also one with immense technical power to solve its problems and combat natural or artificial disasters. (Think of how the Marshall Plan rebuilt Europe after the Second World War.) Conversely, a civilisation in the throes of collapse due to natural or artificial stress factors is hardly likely to be one capable of, or interested in, sending out interstellar colonisation missions.

    Marc, I don’t know whether my analysis of certain technical and logical points in your paper has yet appeared in JBIS, but I think I contacted you before to point out that the “minimum colony mission” you propose is essentially a suicide mission, and therefore does not satisfy your goal of giving a reasonable sense of the challenge. Also, I would ask for more clarity about what you think could plausibly threaten human civilisation throughout the entire Solar System. Obviously, if we cannot confidently settle Mars or the asteroid belt, then we have not yet proven the technologies to colonise with similar resources further afield, but if we can, then civilisation is already sufficiently diversified to weather all but the most science-fictional of doom and gloom scenarios.

    But your comment above — “let’s make a future worth living for!” — I wholeheartedly endorse.

    Oxford, UK

  • Marc G Millis June 20, 2012, 10:17

    @ Kenneth, and all,

    I agree that the continuing rise in computational prowess will affect the plans for interstellar flight. I even alluded to this in my more optimistic ‘future history.’

    What I do not know, and have not had the time to hunt down, is who are the pioneers on that topic? Who are the most insightful and productive individuals who are writing about such things now? If any of our readers have recommendations in that regard, please post here or send a note to Paul Gilster. Along similar lines, I do not know who the best researchers are who can impartially and insightfully shed light on THE challenges and current SOA of sustainable life support. Again, recommendations from our readership are welcome.

  • Marc G Millis June 20, 2012, 11:16


    (1) Regarding selling points… I have used both the motivations of human survival and human thriving in my interviews and writings. They are both part of the reality, regardless of how they taste. Considering that there is still only sparse financial support, we are all missing the mark. Interstellar progress is still mostly limited to individual researchers who work on this on their own time and money.

    (2) Regarding your colony ship analyses… Given the enormous uncertainties from extrapolating today’s data, none of our predictions (yours, others, and mine) is going to be spot on. So far the various predictions have all fallen within the uncertainty bands. Thus, from my point of view, I do not see much value in arguing finer points within such huge uncertainties. And in that same vein, I see little value in trying to pick the best starflight option, today, when so many unknowns still exist for all of them, and for the support to build any of them.

    For me, it’s time to move onto the tangible next steps. For all the various pet approaches to starflight, each has weak points whose solutions can be advanced today. I would like to see our energies focused toward solving each of those next steps instead wasting energy on debating which method is best.

    We have many people in our readership with differing pet approaches. Rather than trying to get everyone to agree with one pet approach, how about we all go work the critical details of each, and be honest with our findings. Then, by the time that there is enough incentive and energy to pick a mission, our community will have more advanced and accurate information from which to judge.


  • JohnHunt June 20, 2012, 11:35

    Let’s not overlook the fact that accelerating intelligence holds existential risks, not just optimistic benefits. Like they say with preventing a terrorist act, you can succeed many times in thwarting a terrorist attack. But the terrorists need only succeed once. This is especially true with existential risks. Because once it occurs, by definition, there is no possible way of learning from it in order to prevent any future occurrences. We can want to believe in an optimistic future but such belief, ignoring growing evidence to the contrary, does little to prevent, buy time, or prepare survival solutions in a timely manner.

  • Gregory Balaze June 20, 2012, 14:02

    Two questions for Marc Millis:

    1) You equate world energy production to the energy needed for interstellar flight, there are many devices, ie. NIF, particle accelerators that produce more energy momentarily than the world produces. True the overall energy density is low but isn’t if the energy can be best utilized for propulsion as compared to the amount produced?

    2) You mentioned in your comments, “Additional calculations suggest we now have enough energy to send about a 1-kg mass to Alpha Centauri with a 71 year transit, provided no rocket propellant is required.” What is this based on? World energy levels?

    Thanks very much,

  • Marc G Millis June 20, 2012, 15:44

    1) The estimates of required energy are simply based on the kinetic energy needed to move a spacecraft from here to there in the allotted time. I think the large numbers from particle accelerators are inferred from ‘power’ specs, where power = energy per time. Even enormous ‘power’ levels, for very short times, does not accumulate (or consume) that much total energy. Remember, that the energy data I used includes all human energy consumption & production, including the energy supplied to such facilities.

    2) The estimate for the amount of mass we can send is the reverse of calculating how much energy do we need for a preferred mass. Considering the energy available today, the biggest mass we could send is about 1kg. Again, both calculations rely on the kinetic energy required to move that mass from Earth to Alpha Centauri with a 71 year transit. That time is for a 75 year mission (4yrs for data to reach back to Earth), assumed to be the longest mission duration for which a sponsor would be willing to commit. If a sponsor is willing to support an 80,000 year mission, then we could do that today (That is Voyager’s rate).

    As I said with all of these, the estimates have huge uncertainties and different assumption will yield different results… but still having huge uncertainties. I did not know what the answer would be before I ran the numbers. To get an honest, unbiased estimate I tried to come up with a fair technique and apply moderate assumptions and data… as opposed to the all-too-common paper where the technique or assumptions are skewed to get a desired answer.

  • James June 20, 2012, 16:25

    Marc: Please talk about the next steps that you would want to chip away at if funding was no issue. Would you focus more on conventional forms of propulsion and energy creation or really advance and exotic forms to get to FTL speeds?

    If you had control of the purse strings; what resources would devote to interstellar travel?

  • Eniac June 20, 2012, 17:51

    Marc, why do you think the world’s energy production is relevant to a starship builder? It is not likely that we will take energy from the grid and pack it into the ship, after all. More likely, the ship will carry the means to produce its own energy. How much we need, use or produce world-wide for other purposes is quite irrelevant.

    The only useful connection I see is the realization that once we have a starship, energy will be easier to come by, because we can build a stationary version of the ship’s engine to produce whatever we need here at home.

  • Marc G Millis June 20, 2012, 18:21

    If money were no object, I’d invite research proposals over a span of relevant topics, but with the caveat that they be short-term tasks just to address a tangible issue (1-3 yr task). The topics would span (1) What’s out there worth visiting? (2) How to get there (both probes and human), and (3) Societal implications.

    I’d run these solicitations annually and force the findings of the prior results to affect the next round of selections. Review workshops would be needed about every 2 to 3 years.

    On the individual task level, it depends on how far the work is already advanced. For example, at the extreme of the seemingly simple solar sails, where much of the engineering is mature, a logical next step would be to create a business plan to see if the benefits vs costs are good enough to evoke sponsors (and then try to get those sponsors). At the other extreme of the seemingly impossible faster-than-light flight, a fitting next step would be to tackle the time-rate-of-change details of turning on/off an FTL metric – to shed more light on the real physics. For the in-between technologies, I’d love to see focus on the ‘weakest links,’ such as determining the real attainable performance of magnetic nozzles, creating multi-century reliability, power beaming pointing accuracy at LY scales, etc. There is a huge span of possibilities there. The sociological issues are ripe for studies about sustainable governance models for isolated space colonies, and many other human issues. The “what’s out there” merits a focus on the closest, meaningful destination options. I can also see value in statistical estimates for how far would we need to travel to reach other habitable worlds… so we know design constraints for our missions.

    I would not want to fund work that would happen anyway, such as the ongoing and well-done exoplanet searches, or space technology whose customer is more likely to be the advocates of Moon and Mars exploration. I would want to fill the gaps of what is not being addressed – the stuff that stretches beyond that nearer-term attention span.

    The selection criteria would be derived from the lessons in Ch 22 of ‘Frontiers’, but revised with a team of both paying customers and practitioners to devise valued and attainable selection priorities.

    Personally, if my own work were funded, I want to design and test sensors based on Eddington’s optical analogy (for light bending in gravitational fields) combined with variations of Mach’s principle to see if conjectured properties of space actually exist – properties that might be useful to later devise space drives methods.

    AND… I would also fund the grunt labor of finally taking all the data that we have already compiled and posting it in an organized manner on the Tau Zero website so that the greater community knows what has been, and has not been done. This especially includes understanding the challenges, and the upper limits of contemporary technologies. There are too many ongoing debates where the answers are already out there… and where the real contentious issues need attention.

    AND… I would want a significant portion of all that work to be done in concert with graduate student dissertations, where the school takes an active role in making sure the work is done to scholarly standards.

    And pricing…?
    – To keep both Centauri Dreams and the Tau Zero connections alive and well, we need roughly $10k/month. Actually we need more than that to implement things like the graduate student system and active research solicitations… and to get our existing network of pioneers and scouts to share their work in publicly accessible forms (volunteerism only goes so far).
    – To support research tasks, expect a span from a low $50k to as high as $500k (1-3 yr task format). For graduate student support, figure $100k each.
    – To run a solicitation where enough work is supported get collateral momentum going, I figure we’d need about $7M per year, much of that being disbursed to individual tasks.

  • ljk June 20, 2012, 18:34

    Regarding AI experts, I have always been interested in the work of Hugo de Garis, who is not only a computer and math expert, he looks at the social issues that may come about when humans realize they are no longer the smartest ones around (this is why so many try to trivialize aliens and turn cetaceans into cute pets for our entertainment).


    The man who came up with the word Artilect (for Artificial Intellect), Hugo currently lives in China after literally going around the world for most of his adult career trying to get people to listen to him and fund his ideas. Most institutions did not, except for China, which gave him lots of money and resources. Hugo is also focused on higher mathematics.

    The Chinese are very interested in Hugo’s ideas and do not seem to think he is merely spouting science fiction. And as I have said elsewhere in this blog, if anyone has the ability and will to make an Orion spaceship, it is the Chinese. They also have the guy who could give them the AI to properly run an interstellar vessel.


    JohnHunt – What are these “existential risks” you refer to when it comes to “accelerating intelligence”? Do you mean anything other than the old trope about a giant computer mind taking over the world? If you had an intellect trillions of times more powerful than any human brain such as Hugo de Garis envisions, would you waste your time with one little planet and one little species that is hardly evolved beyond the social animal stage?

  • ljk June 20, 2012, 18:50

    Here is an interesting online paper about AI I just found:


    And while this is older, it addresses many issues regarding Worldships (giant inhabited multigenerational colony ships) that remain:


    A very interesting quote from the above online book (from the section “The sky starts at your feet”):

    “One thing that impresses me about the Space environment is that, hostile as it is to us pulpy organisms, it is wholly benign for electronic and mechanical machinery, much better for them than this corrosive, weighty Earth’s surface. An engineering friend of mine, Michael Callahan, used to speculate that the machines have been longing for years to get into Space. They’re using us to get there and when they’ve succeeded they’ll throw us away. Or, maybe they’ll give us something wonderful we don’t even know we need. In whatever philosophical and technical configuration they are, we shall be obliged to rely upon machines to make Space habitable for us.”


  • Kenneth Harmon June 21, 2012, 1:31

    Marc and All,

    It seems from your calculations above that you believe that you could run a great Interstellar Research Program for about $10-$15 Million per year total. Is this about right? Just checking.

    One general observation on how a massive Interstellar Research and Development project could be paid for as early as within the next ~20 years including support for something like “Build the Enterprise” which is estimated to cost in excess of $1 Trillion. There is really only one known area where such big money could potentially be raised, and it is in mining the Asteroids. If this could be done cost effectively, reliably, and on a large enough Industrial scale it would create enough wealth for those entities involved such as Governments who controlled it or taxed it in some fashion to begin to take the next logical steps. These steps could include rapid Colonization of our Solar System as well as an early trip to Alpha Centauri if there are planets of interest there, and all for Economic reasons.

    Of course, mining the Asteroids on an Industrial scale is no trivial task, but there are Government policies and incentives that could be created to encourage such an activity. Today we do not have the Technology to do this on an Industrial scale, but by 2032 we may, and then anything becomes possible including the creation of some sort of viable Interstellar Exploration and Development entity.

    Simply put, there are Trillions of dollars to be made in mining the Asteroids. With a few Technology breakthroughs, lucky breaks, some visionary Government policies which may not cost very much, and Private Entreprenurship the whole process could get “kick started” fairly quickly. Supporters of both Interplanetary and Interstellar exploration and colonization need to stop worrying about todays admittedly formidable fiscal constraints, and start thinking about a time over the next 20 years when those constraints may no longer exist. In the meantime we need to do what we can to make some of those neccessary technology breakthrought occur as well as sharpen our plans for when better times exist since good luck is when opportunity meets preparation. If one believes Dr Bruce Cordell at 21st Century Waves those better times for Humanity’s next big step into Space may start as early as 2015-2017, and he has amassed a pretty good data base to support his forecast. The good news is there is a potential money source out there we simply need to figure out how to get at it with not just one Asteroid, but many Asteroids.

  • ljk June 21, 2012, 8:53

    Quoting Marc G. Millis from the main article:

    “The good news, Millis notes, is that we could probably have a small colony ship that contained a bunch of humans ready even sooner, by the year 2200 or so. This ship couldn’t necessarily travel to other stars — it wouldn’t be nearly as fast as the Alpha Centauri probe — but it could pack about 500 people in, with supplies. This might be a good backup plan in case we end up trashing the Earth beyond repair and need to ensure the survival of the species.”

    So who will be these 500 lucky ones? Who will choose them? And what will the billions of others stuck on a dying Earth have to say about this? I get the feeling they won’t go down with the ship quietly.

    And where will the said 500 live to carry on the human species? Assuming most of them are able to reproduce, what happens when their population starts growing? Will their artificial habitats be enough? Unless some kind of terraforming project is well underway, where else can they live in the Sol system? Then we will have to hope they can handle the generations of living inside a big tin can and there is a habitable world for terrestrial life somewhere at the other end of the trip, one that is not already occupied with other intelligent beings who may not want to share with strangers.

    Not trying to be a downer, just trying to get the Star Trek paradigm out of our heads if we ever really want to succeed at exploring and colonizing the rest of space.

  • Marc G Millis June 21, 2012, 10:57

    For the N-th time, the examples I used were ONLY sample values to ESTIMATE the energy requirements, rather than advocating for a mission. I am NOT advocating missions. Changing the mission parameters will change the findings, but not appreciably when compared to the uncertainty ranges already specified. This is like arguing about pennies when we don’t even know the answer to the thousands.

    Initially, the first steps would tap energy from the grid. We do not yet have construction facilities in space, and to create those – and put them up there, we would consume energy and materials from Earth. And to create that ‘engine’ that magically produces energy without consuming energy, where did that engine and its fuel come from? How much energy and material transport did it take to build? Even if the Sun will be used to supply the energy (reasonable), it takes energy to build the devices that can capture, store, and transport that energy to your engine. If you plan to mine He3, then calculate how much energy and time it will take to mine enough He3, and be sure to include the energy and time required to transport that He3 to the spacecraft. And don’t forget the waste heat issue, which will add mass to the systems.

    Run the numbers, impartially and rigorously. And then share those results.
    Conduct a ‘connect the dots’ exercise for your visions, specifying how each step gets done and where the energy and hardware comes from for each step… and compare that to the energy and materials that are actually available. Do the analysis in enough detail that you use real numerical estimates that are traceable to reliable sources. When done, please share those findings in a paper.

    $10M-$15M would be plenty for the first years of chipping away at the unsolved problems. For starters, we could even accelerate things with only $200k per year. These values are for the learning stages, exploring the critical issues so that we can make informed decisions later. When the time comes to select, build, and launch missions, a different level of finance would kick in.

    I would love to tap into the profits of the ventures you mention.


  • ljk June 21, 2012, 12:15

    Asteroid-hunting venture wants YOU … to suggest crowdfunding projects

    By Alan Boyle

    Planetary Resources, the billionaire-backed private venture that’s aiming to hunt down and mine near-Earth asteroids, is looking for suggestions about projects that could attract extra funding through Kickstarter-style campaigns.

    Full article here:


    As a kid, I would have found it odd to expect anyone other than the government and/or the military to be running the US space program. Now it looks like if the private sector does not step in, we will be stuck on Earth. I just h0pe they can come through and not mess things up too much in the process.

  • ljk June 21, 2012, 12:26

    If you want to know what is going on in the real world of AI and robots and the integration of the two (as of 1.5 years ago), check out this special edition of Neurocomputing from December of 2010 online here:


    By the way, June 23 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing, one of the first to seriously conceive of AI among other pioneering efforts with computers:


  • ljk June 21, 2012, 14:17

    Marc G Millis said on June 21, 2012 at 10:57:

    “ljk, For the N-th time, the examples I used were ONLY sample values to ESTIMATE the energy requirements, rather than advocating for a mission. I am NOT advocating missions. Changing the mission parameters will change the findings, but not appreciably when compared to the uncertainty ranges already specified. This is like arguing about pennies when we don’t even know the answer to the thousands.”

    I see this in reverse: The mission needs to be tested first before we decide on how much energy we need to send it somewhere. If the plan is not feasible, there is little point in figuring out the rest of the parameters other than as an academic exercise.

    If we are going to send unmodified humans in person to the stars and FTL drives are not available, I want to see if our species can survive and thrive in space (the Sol System) for truly long terms first.

    The astronauts and cosmonauts we have up there now and for the last few decades stay in a cramped tin can circling Earth for six months to a year at most. Almost all their needs are sent up via cargo ships rather than having them grow or manufacture items themselves. If there is serious trouble, help and home are literally minutes away by jumping into a Soyuz (or Shenzhou) craft.

    NASA remains squeamish about astronauts having s-e-x in space, so you know the status of their knowledge regarding reproduction, child birth, and child rearing is probably zilch. Oh wait, I think some fish and frogs mated and had babies on a Space Shuttle mission or two.

    I saw a recent program on Nova where NASA admitted they are still working on making food last long enough for a two-year manned Mars mission! Funny how I had not heard about this problem before. Of course we might have solved these problems decades ago if the original plans for a massive, working space station, lunar bases, and expeditions to Mars had been allowed to happen. Instead we were derailed with the Space Shuttle and other things that ensured we remained in low Earth orbit to this day.

    We better get serious about a human presence in nearby space before we even think about sending anyone to Alpha Centauri, or all these interstellar starship plans will remain science fiction. Or perhaps we should only be sending Artilects and very modified humans into the galaxy.

  • Kenneth Harmon June 21, 2012, 20:20


    You, Rob Henry. Kim Stanley and others may be absolutely right in your skepticism about Interstellar Travel, especially for the common “unmodified Human”, but please recognize that your skepticism is based at least in part on a circa “2012 perspective”. It would be real interesting to see how things might change if $1-$2 Trillion were thrown at the Interstellar challenge over the course of 3-5 decades. Obviously this is not going to happen anytime soon, but serious investments, and 3-5 decades of further advancements in Technology could very well be a complete “game changer” for early Interstellar Travel options, which by the way could be exercised at the same time as Interplanetary Colonization was going on.

    In essence, with enough incentive the Human Race might even skip a few steps, and could “go Interstellar early” even if our Solar System (mainly inner Solar System) had only been partially colonized first. I doubt if we would ever contemplate anything like an Interstellar Trip (assuming we had the need Technology) from a “standing start”, but we may not have to spend a couple of Centuries fully building out our Interplanetary Colonies first before we attempt the first Interstellar Trip.

    I suspect the key to any early Interstellar journey’s is going to be Alpha Centauri since it is on the cusp of “doability” given its relative nearness to Sol/Terra. If something of real interest like a somewhat habitable planet is discovered around Alpha Centuari then we may go sometime between 2075-2200. If there is nothing of real interest around Alpha Centauri then it may be many Centuries in the future before we “go Interstellar” given the distances involved, and energy required to travel much beyond about 5 LYr’s. In essence, even an early Kardashiev-1 Civilization with enough incentive can get out to ~5 LYrs, although it would be stretched to its very limit to do it. Roughly double the required distance to 10-12 LYrs, and the problem becomes at least an order of magnitude harder unless one is willing to take many Centuries to reach the destination. Much beyond 12 LYrs from Sol/Terra it becomes virtually impossible for a Kardashiev-1 Civilization to do it unless one is willing to take many Centuries to get somewhere like a Star System ~20 LYrs out. That is unless of course there is some type of “new physics” breakthrough that changes everything.

    The past ~40 years and the relatively glacial pace of Technology development and Space exploration they produced are not neccessarily prologue to the next ~40 years in terms of Technology development and Space exploration. In fact, the last ~40 years may have been the exception, and the next ~40 years may be a lot more like the time between 1932-1972 then 1972-2012 (See Dr Bruce Cordell at 21st Century Waves for this perspective) as we enter a new Maslow Window for accelerated Technology development in general as well as increased Space exploration and exploitation.

  • Rob Henry June 21, 2012, 23:28

    I am also puzzled by the modern trend for the environmentally conscious to equate technology and wealth accumulation with damage. It should be obvious to all the it provides potential to fix such problems, and any harm is just a by-product of any new human potential (I.e. if our population grows to ecosphere stressing levels it is because we now have the ability to reduce infant mortality and increase longevity).

    However I also believe that an important selling point of interstellar travel is the survival of humanity. Yes, I agree that it makes little sense to send a starship from a dying world for such purposes, but historically civilisations go through cycles of growth and decline.

    To me, you only have to believe that collapse is an eventual possibility for survival to be a major selling point here.

    And Marc G. Millis,
    Yes the energy utilised in our modern world has looked like an unbiased indicator of when star travel might be possible, but it for it to continue as a an appropriate indicator requires not merely a belief in continuing economic growth, but also for energy availability to always be the limiting factor. The recent apparent uncoupling of the growth of wealth from energy usage in first world economies, indicates that that the usefulness of this model has nearly drawn to an end.

  • Eniac June 21, 2012, 23:47


    And to create that ‘engine’ that magically produces energy without consuming energy, where did that engine and its fuel come from? How much energy and material transport did it take to build?

    Your guess is better than mine. All I’m saying is that the amount of energy the human population of Earth uses for heating and transportation will not give us much of a clue. Neither will the kinetic energy the starship will reach, because we have no idea how expensive the fuel or engine will be in relation to that.

    Run the numbers, impartially and rigorously. And then share those results. Conduct a ‘connect the dots’ exercise for your visions, specifying how each step gets done and where the energy and hardware comes from for each step… and compare that to the energy and materials that are actually available. Do the analysis in enough detail that you use real numerical estimates that are traceable to reliable sources. When done, please share those findings in a paper.

    I assure you, I wish I could. As it is, I am not pushing any visions. I was merely commenting on the validity of your approach: Comparing world energy consumption with the required kinetic energy for a starship and using that as a guide for what we can achieve when.

    I seem to be hearing “put up or shut up”. I must reject this as inappropriate in an Internet forum such as this. My apologies if I misread.

  • Marc G Millis June 22, 2012, 14:05

    Eniac, et al, regarding:
    “I seem to be hearing ‘put up or shut up’. I must reject this as inappropriate in an Internet forum such as this. My apologies if I misread.”

    This is not a case of trying to silence or dismiss dissenting views. It IS a case of asking folks to scrutinize their own ideas, too (which is difficult, yes). Notice that I’ve NOT asked people to quit posting. Instead I am asking people to check out their assumptions and then to tell us what they find. I am asking people to dig deeper and tell us about it, and to do that impartially and reliably.

    Many people have a pet idea that they would like to advance, amidst all the other different pet ideas. That is just fine. We all will gain a better understanding of the big picture by pondering varied possibilities. And by each of us making progress on each of our ideas, we hedge our bets so that the solutions will be there when the real money and energy are finally here to apply.

    If humanity is still having trouble deciding how to get to the Moon, we are far from the point of being able to down-select to ‘THE’ interstellar method. I do indeed have trouble when it sounds like someone is just ‘advocating,’ rather than ‘advancing’ their pet idea. I have even more trouble when such advocacy relies on too many unsolved details, and I apologize if my tone is impatient with that situation. (This is akin to what Centauri Dreams posted before about what Dyson called “premature choice.” I agree with Dyson in this regard.)

    Absent of trillions of dollars or the needed energy prowess, we are not ready to choose one approach. Instead, I want to see all of the various approaches explored realistically. Absent of grand funding, what is the next addressable question behind each approach? Is it a magnetic nozzle? Is it the cost of manufacturing an ultra-low-mass sail? Is it the pointing accuracy for laser-boosted light sails? And whatever that next-step question is… seek an answer, working at whatever level of resources you can muster. Then update our knowledge base with your progress. Did you determine the realistic containment level of a magnetic nozzle? Can you make that sail cheap enough so that a patron will supply the funding to manufacture it? Have you improved the pointing accuracy of high powered lasers to a new level of fidelity?

    Are you among those that would like to contribute something, but just don’t know which approach is best to devote your attention to? If so, make that choice based on which approach clicks with what YOU can wrap your brain around, instead of which approach your think is best for humanity. The former decision involving you is easier, whereas the latter decision is too soon to make (“Premature Choice”). If you later discover that the approach your chose is a dead end, then move onto another approach that YOU can work on. This is about making progress, not about guessing the future correctly.

    Making progress on these incremental, critical questions will get us to the stars sooner than debating about which method we should advocate. If humanity won’t even spend more than potato-chip money on NASA, we are not ready to request trillions for starflight.

    Interstellar flight research is at the stage of seeding the possibles, not at the stage of baking the bread. And if you disagree with that assessment, then show us your assessment to the same level of impartiality and fidelity as the 3-other ‘2-ish century’ estimates.

    By all means, do NOT shut-up. Question what is posted here and question yourself. Post, read, ponder, re-post. Learn. Share. Make Progress.

    Ad astra incrementis.

  • Marc G Millis June 22, 2012, 16:54

    To Rob Henry,
    It is fair to question an extrapolation of 25-yrs of data into centuries. When I plotted the uncertainty bands, I used only 1 standard deviation, and even that was huge. The results could vary wildly even within 1 standard deviation.

    What matters, now, is making progress on what we can work on. Only when enough progress has been made can we reasonably extrapolate those trends.


  • Eniac June 23, 2012, 10:56

    Marc, I fully agree with what you say about choosing approaches, and that was not an issue I was concerned with. I am placated by your affirmation that all input, be it off-the-cuff arguments, back-of-the-envelope calculations, or in-depth peer-reviewed research is taken each for what it is and appreciated on its merits.

    As for the subject at hand, I am with Yogi Berra: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” And also (myself, not Yogi Berra): The importance of energy to human progress is highly overrated by many in this day and age. This widespread misconception will subside soon enough by itself. Certainly before we can think about building interstellar spacecraft.

  • Astronist June 29, 2012, 5:56

    For the record. Marc Millis wrote: “I have used both the motivations of human survival and human thriving in my interviews and writings. They are both part of the reality, regardless of how they taste.” True. The question is which of two possible responses we give. I keep hearing the idea that interstellar flight can save a tiny elite of people, or even just human embryos, to start again in another planetary system while life in the Solar System goes to hell. I advocate, by contrast, a public platform which states that the technological capabilities inherent in starflight are also those which we need to ensure the long-term sustainability of our civilisation. I believe this is both more realistic, and more morally acceptable to the majority of people whose support we need to encourage.

    John Hunt wrote: “accelerating intelligence holds existential risks, not just optimistic benefits.” The implication seems to be that civilisation is heading for a catastrophic bottleneck, from which a few survivors will start a new civilisation, which will encounter the same bottleneck and repeat the process, until either a form of sustainable civilisation arises which avoids the risks, or a bottleneck occurs from which there are no survivors. My point is simply that if there are serious risks, then our duty is to lend what intellectual and technological power we have to helping the rest of society survive those risks and prosper, not to use that power to try to escape. If the ship is sinking and there is only one lifeboat, what would you think about someone who made a dash for that boat, and what about someone who joined the gang bailing the water out and trying to repair the gash?