A Starship Report from Brussels

Tau Zero’s founding architect brings news of a recent European Union meeting that included starships and their implications on the agenda. Here’s hoping that while he was there he also had the chance to sample some of those fabulous Belgian ales…

by Marc Millis

European Union

The European Union recently held a conference to collect information to plan for the coming decades of science and technology priorities. This included the theme of international collaboration and the implications for all humanity across the globe. As a part of this conference, the EU organizers invited Mae Jemison of the 100 Year Starship organization to chair a session about interstellar flight. Mae rounded up a suite of speakers including Buzz Aldrin (a genuine space celebrity), Jill Tarter (SETI), Lou Friedman (solar sail advocate and former Planetary Society director), Kathryn Denning (space anthropologist), Pam Contag (microbiologist), Marc Millis (propulsion physicist), and about half-dozen more.

Image: Outside the European Parliament building in Brussels. Credit: Marc Millis.

The presentations were recorded and can be accessed here either now or very shortly. Look for the link to 100 Year Starship Session at European Parliament 2013. There were 11 talks of roughly 4 minutes each, plus Q&A. The talks covered a healthy span of issues and approaches. This coverage included the motivations for star flight, the compelling reasons to begin now, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the degree of difficulty involved in achieving true star flight, and a variety of insights regarding the imperative to create sustainable closed loop life support.

Buzz Talk 2nd posh din via Ronke_Olabisi

The topic of sustainable life support was given a healthy dose of attention. For human star flight, this is an unavoidable imperative whose methods must achieve 100% recycling. This forces achievements beyond what is necessary for Moon and Mars bases. In addition to the obvious issues of sustainable biology and human physical health, issues such as clothing manufacturing and recycling, governance methods, and questions about what cultures and individual life experiences would be fitting for an interstellar world ship emerged in these discussions.

Image: Buzz Aldrin addresses the guests during a dinner session. Credit: Ronke Olabisi.

While some might think that issues like these can be postponed until we are closer to the goal, remember that all humanity is trapped on a spaceship with a malfunctioning life-support system (human-induced climate change) right now, along with a radiation shielding system whose permanence is not guaranteed and a ‘crew’ that is largely oblivious to their responsibility for maintaining the habitability of spaceship Earth.

But all is not dark despite such gloomy prospects. There were also plenty of discussions about using the goal of star flight to provide a positive view of the future, something to allow us all to thrive, not just survive. For example, one talk suggested that we use the context of the love for our children to frame this positive future view. It was interesting that the person who made this comment, Jennie Yeung, also made the observation that she was the only Asian in this interstellar session and that Asians represent roughly half of the population of starship Earth.

Inside EU Presentations

Image: The European Union session at work. Credit: Marc Millis.

Sustaining Spaceship Earth, and learning how to create more world ships, calls for a world-wide endeavor. The focus of subsequent discussions was, “What do we do next?” Recall that at our present rate of procrastination, two-centuries remain before starflight might become possible (not including precursor missions). What is not known is if human society will survive long enough to achieve that sustained survival ability. Amongst the speakers, deep thinkers in their own right, there was frank discussion about such unknowns and what we can each do to make a better future. While Mae Jemison assembles a proposal to the European Union for interstellar work, the individual speakers discussed amongst themselves how to collaborate and what we can each do as we pursue our own specialties to make relevant progress. Despite the encouraging invitation from the European Union that puts the focus on these possibilities, there is no guarantee that there will be funding for this type of work.

The effect of star flight on society was also discussed. First, when considering the levels of energy needed to achieve interstellar flight, our civilization will have had to have achieved sustainable peace amongst ourselves. Even a slight misuse of these levels of energy could destroy the entire surface of Earth. Humanity must mature to have the responsibility to use such prowess safely.

Speakers in EU

Image: Speakers’ stations at the meeting. Credit: Marc Millis.

John Carter McKnight, Kathryn Denning, and others articulated the dimensions of the ethics and regulatory issues involved in moving towards interstellar capabilities. And when it comes to how to tell the story of the values and risks of interstellar flight, Kathryn Denning suggested that we avoid using some common analogies that have been popularized to discuss spaceflight. Specifically she cautioned against analogies to Columbus and Magellan, since these events of discovery also included some of the uglier sides of humanity, such as greed, mutiny, and slavery. In short we need to create a new positive message that accurately conveys the opportunities risks and sensible steps to eventually achieve both the societal maturity and technological capability of star flight, and in so doing, vastly improve life on Earth.

In the meanwhile then, while we all wait for our ideal levels of funding to come in, we shall continue ad astra incrementis, to the stars in ever-increasing steps.

100YSS group via Ronke_Olabisi

Image: A group shot following discussions on the 100 Year Starship project in Brussels. The front four: Marsal Gifra, Buzz Aldrin, Jill Tarter, Jennie Yeung. In back curving from left to right, Kathleen Colgan, Gwen R. Artis, Lou Friedman, Kathryn Denning, Alires Alimon, Ronke Olabisi, Karl Aspelund, Mae Jemison, John Carter McKnight, Pam Contag, Marc Millis. Credit: Ronke Olabisi.


Into the Orion Arm

Although we have little observational data to go on, the existence of the Oort Cloud simply makes sense. We see new comets coming into the inner system that are breaking up as they approach the Sun, obviously not candidates for long survival. There has to be a source containing billions of comets to account for those we do see. The Kuiper Belt is stuffed with what we can call ‘iceteroids,’ all moving more or less along the plane of the ecliptic until, well beyond the Kuiper Belt itself at about 10,000 AU, the disk shaped belt of material spreads into the spherical Oort Cloud. A nudge from a rogue planet or passing star is enough to produce the velocity change to send a comet inward.

We’ve been looking this week at possible human uses for cometary objects, including the fact that they’re rich in water but also nitrogen and carbon wrapped up in interesting organic compounds. From the standpoint of resource extraction, we also find interesting elements like silicon, sulfur, nickel, chromium, magnesium and iron available in at least small amounts. Tiny worlds a few kilometers in diameter, rich in resources and loaded with water, existing by the trillions. Surely a space-oriented civilization of the future will find a way to exploit them.

Protecting the Inner System

But it’s likely that long before we start talking about a human presence in the Oort Cloud, we’ll be engaged in robotic studies driven by the sheer necessity of protection. Recent near-miss asteroid events have raised public consciousness about near-Earth objects that could pose a threat to our planet. Comets can wreak havoc as well, with the difference that near-Earth objects are gradually becoming tracked and catalogued. With an NEO, we can plot trajectories that give us time to consider how to move an object that might not be projected to hit for decades.

Comets are different. We can’t predict when a new one is going to appear. Robert Zubrin points out that when the huge comet Hale-Bopp was detected in 1995, it was well beyond the orbit of Saturn, but moving at a speed sufficient to cross the Earth’s orbit a mere two years later. An object like this, massive and moving at high velocity, would have been all but impossible to deflect if we had learned it was headed for us. Deflecting a fast-moving comet, as opposed to a nearby asteroid, means getting to it when it is still deep in the outer system. Planetary protection will all but ensure we’ll have a presence in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud one day.


Image: Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, torn into pieces as a result of a close approach to Jupiter in July 1992, before its later impact with that planet. The major cometary fragments range in size from one to a few kilometers. Credit: JPL.

Whether such a presence is largely robotic or not, it will spur the technologies we’ll eventually use for starflight. And not just the technologies — as we’ve seen, human settlements on O’Neill cylinders exploiting cometary resources would be case studies in isolation and social experimentation. Starships designed for fast crossings (multiple decades) or gradual voyaging (thousands of years) will have to incorporate what we’ve learned about people working together to keep communities in coherence when far from home. The Oort Cloud has a role to play.

The Fork in Interstellar Evolution

It’s possible that we may see two kinds of starflight in the next thousand years. I turn again to Richard Terra, whose article “Islands in the Sky” ran in the June, 1991 issue of Analog (it’s also reprinted in a 1996 hardcover from Wiley with the same name, a volume of essays edited by Stanley Schmidt and Robert Zubrin). Terra’s notion is that the wealthy inner system cultures will eventually develop what Ben Finney calls ‘fastships,’ spacecraft capable of moving at a substantial percentage of the speed of light. These will always be the first to cross the interstellar divide, but a slower wave of migration will follow.

The point is this: A small but growing human population in the Oort Cloud will master cometary motion, taking advantage of the fact that at 10,000 AU, the speed needed to orbit the Sun is just 300 meters per second. Compare this to the Earth’s 30,000 meters per second and it should be obvious that it takes only a small change in velocity to alter a comet’s orbit. We’ll have learned this in theory if not in practice because it factors into the engineering needed to divert a potentially dangerous comet from striking our planet decades in the future. Learn how to bump comets to change their orbits and you start thinking about what else you might do with such an object.

Interstellar space must be littered with comets that have been ejected from our system through the 4.6 billion years of its existence. Some estimates run as high as 1000 Earth masses in cometary material, so the resource base between us and the nearby stars should be plentiful. If Oort Cloud comets are separated by about 20 AU, these interstellar comets may be hundreds of thousands of AU from each other. The Oort Cloud should be in perpetual flux as some interstellar comets enter and move through it while other comets are pushed back out.

Let me quote Terra on this:

Some of these interlopers are bound to be found within Sol’s own Oort Cloud, working their way free of the Sun’s grip, at perhaps one in every several thousand. Relative velocities between Solar and interstellar comets will be low, and it will be tempting for Oort Cloud residents to hitch a ride outward — perhaps farther out into the permanent Cloud, perhaps out into interstellar space. Drifting outward at about 10 km/s or about 2 AU per year, they will make slow progress indeed. In 50,000 years they will be halfway to the nearest stars. But by then they will be wholly adapted to life in interstellar space and will perhaps not be too concerned with visiting other star systems.

So maybe there’s no one way to depict interstellar expansion. Fastships propelled perhaps by fusion or beaming technologies or antimatter may eventually cut the journey to decades. Over the millennia, a species fully adapted to living in space — and surely evolving in ways we’ll be unable to predict — will populate the outer system and move in slow generation ships between stars that may no longer be so much a destination as a curiosity. Perhaps some Oort Cloud communities will, as Terra suspects, alter a comet’s orbit so as to make a gravity assist maneuver around the Sun, all the while shielding the nucleus with solar power collectors.

Gravity assist might pick the speed up to 150 kilometers per second, which works out to a bit over 8000 years to Alpha Centauri. Whether such a traveling colony world would actually put colonists on a planet around the destination star is conjectural. Perhaps more likely is the idea that they would study the new solar system and then set course for another. The human species will be in the process of evolutionary forking, and after a few such journeys between the stars, the meeting between the cometary travelers and their fastship brethren would be an interesting one to see. What would these two different branches of humanity still share?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but it gets at the meaning of what it is to be human. Our future Oort Cloud dwellers will have not only an isolated gene pool but the tools of genetic engineering at their disposal, which could make biochemical and even structural changes possible at a faster clip than straightforward natural selection. If our species survives its technological adolescence — by no means a sure thing, as the Drake Equation reminds us — then humans around other stars are going to take a wide variety of forms adapted to their environments, a flowering speciation that could spread humanity out into the Orion Arm.


Life Among the Comets

It’s hard to imagine a sane human being who would choose to live in the Oort Cloud, on a colony world where the outside temperature is in the single digits Kelvin and small bands of maybe 25 each would tend to the problems of energy production and resource extraction. Human contact beyond this would be sporadic, though Richard Terra makes the case (in “Islands in the Sky,” an Analog article I referenced yesterday) that a larger community dispersed through nearby settlements would meet regularly to ensure genetic diversity and relieve isolation.

History tells us that people do all kinds of inexplicable things, and perhaps a small number of adventurers, outcasts, zealots and other dissidents would find a home here. But given the abundant resources closer to the inner system, I’m more inclined to look at the Oort Cloud as a source of raw materials for colonies on the move between stars. These would be generation ships moving perhaps no faster than Voyager 1 moves now, about 17 kilometers per second. The main point is that the space between the stars is hardly empty, and future generations with the tools of advanced propulsion may take not one giant leap but many small steps in the direction of Alpha Centauri.


Image: The Oort Cloud in relation to the Solar System. Credit: UC-Berkeley/Comet’s Tale Development Team.

Whether we’re settlers or voyagers (and I suspect we’ll be both), we’ll learn all along the way from the experience of adapting to space. Ben Finney and Eric Jones put it this way in their paper “Fastships and Nomads” (reference at the end of yesterday’s post):

If interstellar settlement happens at all, it will come after our descendants have learned to maintain self-sufficient communities detached from Earth’s nurturing biosphere, learned to tap the knowledge and skill potential of advanced computers, learned to efficiently harness the energy that flows out of the Sun, and even learned to extract useful energy from the fusion of atoms. We are on the verge of achieving all these things. With sufficient skill and patience we will attain the stars.

Of course, we have been on the ‘verge’ for a long time when it comes to fusion. But taking the long view of human expansion and looking not just decades but centuries ahead, these words resonate.

Finding the Energy

Whichever scenario strikes your fancy, the energy conundrum is still huge. Yesterday I talked about Finney and Jones’ ideas of concentrating starlight through vast mirrors the size of the continental United States. Terra picks up on this to describe colonists living in O’Neill cylinders, each housing a band of outer system stalwarts who would tend a mirror farm stretching across 30,000 kilometers of space. Maybe ‘tending’ is the wrong word, though — robotic systems would surely do the heavy lifting with substantial human oversight. From Terra’s paper:

The primary sector of the economy — the exploitation of natural resources — is likely to be small and almost completely automated. Human involvement will be minimal. The primary sector will consist of two basic activities: energy production and the harvesting of cometary resources. Once the appropriate systems are established, both will be relatively simple activities.

The secondary sector — the transformation of the natural resources — will include refining and processing the raw cometary feedstock, manufacturing, construction and assembly operations, agriculture and food production, and recycling. Again, many of these activities will be highly automated, but closer human supervision will be necessary to tailor these activities to the current needs of the community.

Terra goes on to cite a third sector where most of the human skill set will go to work. Here he’s talking about support services that maintain the life support systems and needed repairs to the colony world. Information processing, education, administration, and eventually business and commerce between settlements will command the attention. The latter, keeping colonists in contact with other colonies, has also been proposed in various starship scenarios over the course of long voyages, with multiple ships accompanying each other on the journey.

Both Terra and Finney and Jones, of course, are talking about full time colonies rather than crews in transit. Their mirror farms are themselves components of even larger arrays, spread out perhaps 200,000 kilometers from the cometary nucleus. Growing the community would mean creating comet clusters by moving new comets into range, which would allow populations up to 100,000 or so to exist, though spread out widely through the cluster. With perhaps a light-day of separation between communities living in such clusters, the colonists would be in constant electromagnetic communication with other settlements scattered throughout the inner and outer Oort.

The Fusion Alternative

As wondrous a science fictional setting as this provides (and vast mirrors inevitably call to mind the continent-sized sails of Cordwainer Smith’s “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul”), I’d like to think there are more practical ways to produce the needed energy. But what? Fission doesn’t fly out here because the heavy elements are found in only minute amounts. Remember, we’re not talking about a colony world that is sustained by regular supplies from the inner system. We have to exploit local resources, and that takes us to the deuterium available in comets.

If fusion can be mastered, we have changed the game. In his book Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization (Tarcher, 1999), Robert Zubrin points to the progress in both robotics and artificial intelligence that will be needed to sustain widely scattered colonies, adding that previous experience settling the asteroid belt may teach us many lessons. But he doesn’t like the starlight mirror idea one bit:

While some have suggested concentrating starlight, it doesn’t really make sense. To get a single megawatt of power, the mirror would have to be the size of the continental United States. The only viable alternative based on currently known physics is fusion. In the Kuiper Belt, it might be possible to get helium-3 shipped out from mining operations around Neptune. Oort Cloud settlements would be too far out to obtain much from the solar system, though deuterium should be available in all iceteroids, so perhaps the colonists might choose to build reactors based on that fuel alone. However, helium can exist in the liquid phase below 5 K (-268 degrees C), which is the environmental temperature at about 3000 AU. It is therefore not impossible that liquid helium could exist within Oort Cloud objects beyond that distance.

But even if we can make fusion work — and I’m assuming that a civilization that can move large payloads to the Oort Cloud is one that probably has — our isolated communities still have an energy conundrum. They’ve got a couple of centuries worth of fusion fuel in the comet cluster they’ve cultivated, but it’s still a non-renewable resource. That’s going to mean tight rationing of fusion fuels even if the technology is available, unless somehow proton fusion can be mastered. Maybe an Oort Cloud settlement of any size would have to have Finney and Jones’ mirrors after all, constructing them as the only renewable solution for succeeding generations.

Zubrin thinks wanderlust and the pioneer spirit will drive some humans outward to test out such scenarios. After all, the great bulk of human society will remain in the inner system where the warmth is, and its possible that the growing centralization and homogeneity of culture here over the course of centuries would incline the more independent-minded to emigrate. O’Neill cylinders, asteroids and comets may be the ideal home for dissident groups trying social experiments and pushing the envelope on what a human society can become. “Why live on a planet whose social laws and possibilities were defined by generations long dead, when you can be a pioneer and help to shape a new world according to reason as you see it?” Zubrin asks.

But there may be other scenarios that would force us into the Oort Cloud. Tomorrow I’ll look at a couple of possibilities that could make the outer system our stepping stone to the nearest stars.


Into the Oort Cloud: A Cometary Civilization?

Jules Verne once had the notion of a comet grazing the Earth and carrying off a number of astounded people, whose adventures comprise the plot of the 1877 novel Off on a Comet. It’s a great yarn that was chosen by Hugo Gernsback to be reprinted as a serial in the first issues of his new magazine Amazing Stories back in 1926, but with a diameter of 2300 kilometers, Verne’s comet was much larger than anything we’ve actually observed. Comets tend to be small but they make up for it in volume, with an estimated 100 billion to several trillion thought to exist in the Oort Cloud. All that adds up to a total mass of several times the Earth’s.

Of course, coming up with mass estimates is, as with so much else about the Oort Cloud, a tricky business. Paul R. Weissman noted a probable error of about one order of magnitude when he produced the above estimate in 1983. What we are safe in saying is something that has caught Freeman Dyson’s attention: While most of the mass and volume in the galaxy is comprised of stars and planets, most of the area actually belongs to asteroids and comets. There’s a lot of real estate out there, and we’ll want to take advantage of it as we move into the outer Solar System and beyond.

Comets and Resources

Embedded with rock, dust and organic molecules, comets are composed of water ice as well as frozen gases like methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, ammonia and an assortment of compounds containing nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur. Porous and undifferentiated, these bodies are malleable enough to make them interesting from the standpoint of resource extraction. Richard P. Terra wrote about the possibilities in a 1991 article published in Analog:

This light fragile structure means that the resources present in the comet nuclei will be readily accessible to any human settlers. The porous mixture of dust and ice would offer little mechanical resistance, and the two components could easily be separated by the application of heat. Volatiles could be further refined through fractional distillation while the dust, which has a high content of iron and other ferrous metals, could easily be manipulated with magnetic fields.

Put a human infrastructure out in the realm of the comets, in other words, and resource extraction should be a workable proposition. Terra talks about colonies operating in the Oort Cloud but we can also consider it, as he does, a proving ground for even deeper space technologies aimed at crossing the gulf between the stars. Either way, as permanent settlements or as way stations offering resources on millennial journeys, comets should be plentiful given that the Oort Cloud may extend half the distance to Alpha Centauri. Terra goes on:

Little additional crushing or other mechanical processing of the dust would be necessary, and its fine, loose-grained structure would make it ideal for subsequent chemical processing and refining. Comet nuclei thus represent a vast reservoir of easily accessible materials: water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane, and a variety of metals and complex organics.

Energy by Starlight

Given that comets probably formed on the outer edges of the solar nebula, their early orbits would have been more or less in the same plane as the rest of the young system, but gravitational interactions with passing stars would have randomized their orbital inclinations, eventually producing a sphere of the kind Jan Oort first postulated back in 1950. Much of this is speculative, because we have little observational evidence to go on, but the major part of the cometary shell probably extends from 40,000 to 60,000 AU, while a projected inner Oort population extending from just beyond the Kuiper Belt out to 10,000 AU may have cometary orbits more or less in the plane of the ecliptic. Out past 10,000 AU the separation between comets is wide, perhaps about 20 AU, meaning that any communities that form out here will be incredibly isolated.


Image: An artist’s rendering of the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. Credit: NASA/Donald K. Yeomans.

Whether humans can exploit cometary resources this far from home will depend on whether or not they can find sources of energy. In a paper called “Fastships and Nomads,” presented at the Conference on Interstellar Migration held at Los Alamos in 1983, Eric Jones and Ben Finney give a nod to non-renewable energy sources like deuterium, given that heavy elements like uranium will be hard to come by. Indeed, a typical comet, in Richard Terra’s figures, holds between 50,000 and 100,000 metric tons of deuterium, enough to power early settlement and mining.

But over the long haul, Jones and Finney are interested in keeping colonies alive through renewable resources, and that means starlight. The researchers talk about building vast mirrors using aluminum from comets, with each 1 MW mirror about the size of the continental United States. Now here’s a science fiction setting with punch, as the two describe it:

Although the mirrors would be tended by autonomous maintenance robots, the nomads would have to live nearby in case something went wrong… Although we could imagine that the several hundred people who could be supported by the resources of a single comet might live in a single habitat, the mirrors supporting that community would be spread across about 150,000 km. Trouble with a mirror or robot on the periphery of the mirror array would mean a long trip, several hours at least. It would make more sense if the community were dispersed in smaller groups so that trouble could be reached in a shorter time. There are also social reasons for expecting the nomad communities to be divided into smaller co-living groups.

Jones and Finney go on to point out that humans tend to work best in groups of about a dozen adults, whether in the form of hunter/gatherer bands, army platoons, bridge clubs or political cells. This observation of behavior leads them to speculate that bands of about 25 men, women and children would live together in a large habitat — think again of an O’Neill cylinder — built out of cometary materials, from which they would tend a mirror farm with the help of robots and computers. Each small group would tend a mirror farm perhaps 30,000 kilometers across.

The picture widens beyond this to include the need for larger communities that would occasionally come together, helping to avoid the genetic dangers of inbreeding and providing a larger social environment. Thus we might have about 500 individuals in clusters of 20 cometary bands which would stay in contact and periodically meet. Jones and Finney consider the band-tribe structure to be the smallest grouping that seems practical for any human community. Who would such a community attract — outcasts, dissidents, adventurers? And how would Oort Cloud settlers react to the possibility of going further still, to another star?

More on this tomorrow. For now, the Terra article is “Islands in the Sky: Human Exploration and Settlement of the Oort Cloud,” Analog June, 1991, pp. 68-85. The Jones and Finney paper is “Fastships and Nomads,” in Finney and Jones (eds)., Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience, University of California Press (1985), pp. 88-103.


The British Interplanetary Society at 80 Years: Part II

by Kelvin F. Long

The chief editor of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society here offers part II of his article on the Society’s history. If there is one BIS project that captures the imagination above all others, it’s surely Project Daedalus, the ambitious attempt to design a spacecraft capable of reaching a nearby star within 50 years. But the motivations for Daedalus were wide-ranging and the conclusions of the study may surprise you. The success of the design effort showed us what was possible with the technology of its time, while subsequent studies like Project Icarus upgrade the vessel and take us that much closer to what may one day be a working craft.

Les Shepherd took things to new heights with the publication of his seminal 1952 paper “Interstellar Flight”. This was the first paper ever to properly address the physics and engineering issues associated with sending a probe to another star and it is what I regard as the beginning of interstellar studies as a subject. This brings us to one of the seminal studies of the society, Project Daedalus. Speaking to people about the Project Daedalus study, it is clear that many today don’t fully appreciate the real motivation behind it, which was the Fermi Paradox. This is the apparent contradiction between our theoretical expectations for intelligent life in the universe and our lack of observational evidence.

One of the ways to begin to address this is just to ask if it is even possible to travel between the stars (just like the BIS had earlier asked if it was possible to conceive of a machine to travel to the Moon). So the Daedalus team spent five years (mostly in pubs) designing the 50,000 ton unmanned probe capable of reaching 12% of the speed of light. Their guiding principle was to find a balance between being sufficiently bold and being sufficiently credible. This meant that the design had current technology (1970s) and extrapolated technology (few decades hence).

The approach naturally led to design contradictions (i.e. vacuum tubes next to an AI computer) and was the main limitation on the fidelity of the design integration. But most would agree the team did a pretty good job. As Centauri Dreams readers are familiar with Daedalus by now, I won’t go over the design itself, except to say that it would be a 450 ton flyby probe that was delivered to the Barnard’s Star system, 5.9 light years away after a journey lasting around half a century. At the end of the study the team concluded that if at the outset of the space age we can conceive of a machine such as Daedalus where interstellar flight appeared to be possible, then it is likely that in the coming centuries we could derive a more credible and practical design.

On the basis of this, they concluded that interstellar travel was therefore feasible, and so the explanation for the Fermi Paradox may lay in some other solution (i.e. the prevalence of biological life). But Daedalus was the first study to prove that interstellar flight was possible.


Image: The BIS Project Daedalus, a modern illustration. Credit: Adrian Mann.

Anyone who studies aerospace engineering knows that a vehicle design goes through three levels of iteration. First is the concept design phase, which addresses whether it will work, what it looks like, what requirements drive the design, what trade-offs should be considered and what mass it should have — and if necessary how much it would cost. The next level is the preliminary design phase, which freezes the configuration, develops any vehicle sizing, creates the analytical basis for the design and moves into experimental demonstrations if appropriate. The final level is the detailed design phase, which identifies the individual pieces to be constructed. This includes any tools required. It involves any critical design tests of the structure and finalizes the vehicle configuration layout and performance specification.

Along the way, there is a process of integrating the various systems and subsystems, today couched in the language of systems engineering. In my opinion the Daedalus was an early preliminary vehicle design for a starship. The team defined all of the major systems and most of the subsystems. Full integration was not possible due to the nature of the technological extrapolation. But the vehicle configuration layout, performance specification and mission profile were defined in full where practical to do so.

During my own reading of interstellar concepts, I have come across solar sail-driven methods, laser beaming, microwave beaming, fusion, antimatter and exotic concepts, to name a few. All of these studies have been concept papers, however, or proposal submissions, or case study analyses – they do not constitute designs. I argue that at best they are concepts and for most of them even that term is not fully justified due to errors in the calculations or the gaping areas of engineering or physics not addressed. Daedalus is the only one that can be claimed to be a “starship design” in my view. The only other vehicle that comes close to it is the Project Orion design from the 1950s and 1960s. Orion certainly was a preliminary design, but it was calculated for an interplanetary mission only. Then there were the worldship studies from the 1980s by Alan Bond and Anthony Martin, but these did not go into the sub-system level of the internal architecture. Daedalus was first, and Daedalus remains the only one

On a recent visit to NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, NASA Glenn Research Center and the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, I challenged people to refute my controversial (and deliberately provocative) claim that Daedalus is the only starship design in history. NASA appeared to agree with me. This is an astonishing revelation and I find it intriguing that people are prepared to pronounce interstellar flight impossible when we have only attempted one such design in history. More feasibility studies are clearly required before we can have a clear picture of what the impossibilities or otherwise are.

There are three profound implications that come out of the Daedalus study which I think are worth highlighting again because they are so important:

  • That interstellar travel appears to be entirely feasible in theory and so in the future will likely be feasible in practice.
  • That because interstellar travel is feasible, the absence of any observation of intelligent life in the universe suggests we must seek alternative explanations.
  • That Daedalus was the first and so far only starship design in history and remains so to this day (until the completion of the Project Icarus study anyway).

In the light of history and developments in astronomy, I suppose an important addendum should now be added to the Daedalus study, which is that a flyby is probably not the way to send a probe to another star. This was the view of the Project Icarus team early on, which is why we made deceleration an engineering requirement for the mission. We live in an age where exoplanets are discovered almost weekly, orbiting around other star systems. In the future we should be able to fully characterise those planets, including their stellar atmospheres, using Earth orbiting or lunar based deep space observatories, so the benefits of flyby must be justified from both a performance and cost basis. In order to add value to an interstellar mission, it is more beneficial to send a probe that can release atmosphere penetrators and planetary landers into the local system, accessing the surface that deep space platforms from Earth cannot reach.


Image: Kelvin F.Long lecturing at NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center, February 2013.

Numerous other BIS projects have been in play, the earliest being development of a coelosat in the 1930s, a device capable of effecting navigation by the stars. Ken Gatland invented the idea of the MOUSE launcher from 1948-1950. The lunar lander underwent various developments by Ralph Smith from 1947-1952. Smith also developed the concept of a space station with Harry Ross from 1948-1958. He also designed a manned orbital winged rocket in 1950. Les Shepherd and Val Cleaver wrote some of the first pioneering papers on atomic rockets from 1948-1949. Arthur C Clarke was also busy during this period, designing his electromagnetic lunar launch system in 1950 and the atomic interplanetary spaceship in 1952. His spaceship design was shown in several popular space books by himself, Gatland and others around that time and it has a striking resemblance to the Ares, the vehicle that features in Clarke’s book The Sands of Mars and also the Discovery I which is the design featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey.


Members of the BIS have also been involved in various spin-off projects such as the 1980s HOrizontal Take-off and Landing (HOTOL) project initiated by people like Bob Parkinson at British Aerospace and Alan Bond, then at Rolls Royce. Bond went on to found Reaction Engines Ltd and to develop the groundbreaking Sabre engine, the critical technology required in order to make a vehicle like Skylon (the successor design to HOTOL) technically credible. Charles Cockell launched Project Boreas in 2001, an initiative to design a human habitat at the geographic Martian north pole. The project featured luminaries such as the astronomer Ian Crawford and the science and science fiction author Stephen Baxter, all dedicated members of the society. Other big names have been members of the society throughout its history, including Bob Zubrin, the guy that radically changed our thinking on how to do Mars missions more than anyone. In the 1980s he was regularly communicating with the BIS planetary engineering (terraforming) expert Martyn Fogg, who was then arguably the world authority on the subject.

Image: The BIS Winged Orbital Rocket. Credit: BIS.

I mustn’t forget Olaf Stapledon of course. I am unsure if he ever joined as a member but his famous 1948 lecture on “Interplanetary Man” at the invitation of Clarke was one of those world events that anyone would have wished to attend. I wasn’t born then but was fortunate to meet Stapledon’s grandson Jason Shenai last year. Jason came to the BIS to attend the “Starmaker” symposium which the Technical Committee had organised.

The above are just some examples of major projects the society has pioneered as feasibility studies in the early years, all of which (except for the interstellar probe and SSTO) came to fruition, showing that the society played a vital role in engineering the future. This is what Arthur C.Clarke refers to as “creating a self-fulfilling prophecy,” and this can be achieved by the adoption of positive and optimistic advocacy.

My own entry into the BIS (and indeed the space/interstellar community) was the organisation of the Warp Drive conference in 2007. Speakers came from across the world to London to discuss the developments since Miguel Alcubierre’s seminal 1994 paper. This is where I first met Claudio Maccone and Richard Obousy. It was with Richard’s assistance that we both went on to found Project Icarus, with the goal of catalysing the interstellar community. Those were exciting days. When we look around us at the many interstellar related organisations working on the goal of starflight, we can be proud of our efforts and know that we played some role. Project Icarus was always intended as part designer training exercise more than anything, recognising that there was a lack of design capability to actually work on starships at the time.

The other purpose of the project was to inspire people young and old to believe in the dream of star travel once again. Project Icarus is still on-going as a joint British Interplanetary Society project with the US non-profit Icarus Interstellar, who now manages the project until its completion. Icarus Interstellar have gone on to found many other design projects, taking our original ambitions to a new and hopeful level and I’m proud to have played a role in its foundation. I have also now moved on to found the pending Institute for Interstellar Studies. We and all the interstellar organizations are building the vital industry needed to make interstellar happen at some point in our not too distant future.

On the 13th October 2013 the British Interplanetary Society will be 80 years old. When I consider the achievements of the BIS throughout its history, I am also forced to consider its function. The society is clearly not a science fiction society, but it is also clearly not a commercial space organisation. As a registered charity, I find that its function is in fact unique, in that it exists between both of these worlds. It stands in the metaphorical corridor between “imagination” and “reality” and this is in fact its motto: “from imagination to reality”. People have ideas, concepts, designs, they bring to the BIS and the various mechanisms (lectures, publications, symposia) will help to catalyse those ideas and then to bring them to the attention of wider industry, government and academia.

Nothing exemplifies this more than the example of the BIS Lunar Lander. One wonders whether Daedalus and the Project Icarus study are playing the same role today but for interstellar flight. We also have a role to point the way, to act as a compass direction for future achievements. To help to convince industry, government, academia, the public and the media that something is possible, where the data may have previously suggested it was not. In this way, we encourage innovations and breakthroughs which can lead to new technologies, industries or processes, and thereby greater achievements in the exploration of space.


The HQ building in London is now officially called “Arthur C.Clarke House”, and Clarke twice served as President of the society (then called Chairman) in the years 1946-1947 and 1951-1953. He remains our most inspirational member and we are very proud to carry on with his legacy. It may surprise many to know that although the BIS is the oldest space organisation in the world, it has also been struggling to survive through challenging financial times. Despite this it has continued to serve a vital role for the community at large. The technical publication JBIS, for example, is famous for the publication of its “red cover” issues on interstellar studies from 1974–1991 (we have recently been issuing new red cover volumes), and it has remained the torch holder of the interstellar vision through the decades.

Image: The BIS door bell. Credit: BIS.

Where else would all of those creative talents have found a home for their pioneering and speculative publications on starship design or the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)? However, don’t despair, as things are looking up with the election of an inspirational new President, Alistair Scott, who has a charismatic military-based leadership style, from his experience as an Army officer. He originally studied aeronautical engineering at university and after several exciting positions in industry he settled for many years at the satellite company Astrium. Scott is applying this huge experience to driving the recovery of the society, literally running the committees like they were platoons within a regiment. Yet he is as down to Earth and charming as they come and a complete gentleman, showing respect and warmth for all people no matter their background or rank. He is supported by his loyal team, including Vice Presidents Mark Hempsell (Reaction Engines Future Programs Director), Chris Welch (International Space University Professor) and Suszann Parry, the Executive Secretary.


The society has many new and exciting projects coming online under the supervision of Technical Committee Chairman Richard Osborne, a pioneer of amateur rocketry himself. The BIS is participating in Project KickSat, which is an initiative by Zac Manchester out of Cornell University in the US to place a fleet of ChipSats or Sprites into Low Earth Orbit sometime this year. The BIS members put several thousand pounds into the project, which is now managed with enthusiasm by Andrew Vaudin. The society is also launching Project 2033 (managed by myself), a competition to imagine the future state of space exploration at the society’s centennial anniversary. Sir Arthur C Clarke is famous for his ability to see into the future and predict technology trends. We are hoping to find the next visionary and to see twenty years from now who gets it right. We have recently launched Project STARDROP, which stands for Solar Thermal Amplified Radiation Dynamic Relay of Orbiting Power, which aims to design a 10 GW solar collector power system to run an L5 space colony. This is now being managed by Ian Stotesbury. The past projects of the BIS are outstanding but we are looking towards the next horizon in space.

Image: The BIS President Major Alistair Scott. Credit: BIS.

Things seem to be changing in Britain for the better with government attitudes towards space exploration being much more positive. We now have our own United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA), our own European Astronaut Tim Peak (Britain’s first official astronaut), and as if things could get any better, it was recently announce that a UK industry team in cooperation with UKSA is investigating whether Britain should have its own spaceport…and launch vehicle (yes, you read that right). The company Reaction Engines already has an answer to this of course, with its innovative Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) spaceplane design. The company recently announced critical breakthroughs relating to the pre-cooler technology which has previously prevented similar concepts becoming reality.

We may be the oldest space organisation in the world, but we are also a thriving organisation, making changes to ourselves so as to better serve the modern technological world. We would love for new people to come and join us and be a part of this great society, with its global outreach and impact. We are particularly looking for members in the US or elsewhere to start BIS branches. The history above proves that the BIS does engineer the future. If this is attractive to you too, and you are interested in being a catalyst to our own determined self-fulfilling prophecy, then you will find a home with the BIS. We welcome new members who want to help take imagination to reality. Be unique, and join the British Interplanetary Society, because it’s where the future is made. And the next time you are in London, be sure to pay us a visit.

Finally, I want to end this article with a donations appeal. The BIS is a registered charity and we are all volunteers, including me, yet I manage to run the journal and keep the papers moving. Our financial demands are high and this has impeded our ability to meet the mission. If you believe that the British Interplanetary Society’s role in astronautics has been and continues to be important, then please consider making a donation and we will carry on doing it. Ad Astra.


Donations to the BIS can be made here:

The main BIS web site is located here: www.bis-space.com

The Technical JBIS web site is located here: http://www.jbis.org.uk/

The information on past BIS projects was partly borrowed from the BIS book Interplanetary by Bob Parkinson and incorporates edited information from articles from the August and September 1967 issues of the BIS magazine Spaceflight. The book is available for purchase here: http://www.bis-space.com/products-page/books/