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/