Voyager in Perspective

Joseph Green worked for 37 years in the American space program, retiring from NASA as Deputy Chief of the Education Office at Kennedy Space Center. His specialty was preparing NASA fact sheets, brochures and other semi-technical publications for the general public, explaining complex scientific and engineering concepts in layman’s language. Joe is the author of over 20 science papers for NASA and contractor executives, but I ran across him decades ago through his novel The Loafers of Refuge (Ballantine, 1965), a paperback that sits on my shelf not three feet from where I’m writing. Joe’s five science fiction novels, which include Star Probe (1976) and Conscience Interplanetary (1972), are complemented by about 80 shorter works, and he remains active writing for online magazines, with recent stories in the February and May 2013 issues of Perihelion Science Fiction. As Joe explains, 31 years at Kennedy Space Center puts a wonderful spin on recent events. Sometimes the future happens faster than we think.

by Joseph Green


Not long ago the morning paper carried a front page though below-the-fold story to the effect that space scientists, working from accumulated and analyzed data, have finally agreed that the Voyager I spacecraft entered interstellar space on August 25, 2012. Up until now the exact time has been a matter of dispute. The spacecraft is still operating, and expected to have enough power to keep sending back reports, from at least one sensor, until about 2025.

In 1977 I manned a console as a member of the Atlas/Centaur launch team. I also prepared the A/C technical documents, including the “NASA Fact Sheet(s)” distributed in advance of each launch. These were a compilation and distillation of the most important basic data on both spacecraft and launch vehicle. They were carefully written for the layman, explaining the mission in terms understandable to most high school juniors. I inaugurated the series, and they became very popular with non-technical Kennedy Space Center personnel, the general public, and in particular the news media (the last for obvious reasons — a lot of their work done for them).

Although I wasn’t a member of their teams, the Delta and Titan/Centaur managers tasked me with preparing Fact Sheets for their missions as well. The much larger and more powerful Titan/Centaur had been chosen as the launch vehicle for the Voyagers because of the weight of the (at the time) highly sophisticated robot explorer, and the unusually high velocity needed to reach Jupiter in 18 months.

After a close-up exploration of Jupiter and several of its moons, Voyager I went on to Saturn for another flyby, then headed into interstellar space. The last was basically frosting on the cake, as was the photo Voyager I took on February 14, 1990, looking back at the Solar System (showing Earth as a “pale blue dot”). The two most important mission objectives had been successfully accomplished. Few expected this hardy explorer to still be functioning and reporting back when its escape velocity of 17 kilometers per second (in relation to the Sun) took it into interstellar space. But it’s there, and with another decade (hopefully) of life expectancy.


Image: The Voyager missions with their direction of flight indicated. Credit: NASA/JPL.

The journeys of the Voyagers have been reported here on Centauri Dreams and widely discussed in other media. For me, they trigger reflection and thoughts on perspectives. Mine is that of a teenager reading science fiction in the 1940s, never dreaming that mankind would land on the Moon in my lifetime (2050, perhaps?). And sending a robot into interstellar space was in the far, far future, something my great-grandchildren might try. And yet I not only lived to see both, I actually played a small role in these two great scientific adventures. Those of you growing up at a time when you rather expected to see men walking on the Moon, or robots reporting back from interstellar space, may have an entirely different perspective.

Sometimes the glamor and excitement of manned space flight tends to overshadow the accomplishment of the Voyagers, Pioneers, and other doughty robotic explorers. But in many ways unmanned spacecraft have contributed more to our knowledge of the solar system, and galaxy/universe than the manned programs. We’ve now had robot explorers do close-up, highly instrumented flybys of all eight planets, and one is on its way to the disenfranchised Pluto/Charon system. These accomplishments, it seems from this perspective, are worthy of more respect than they have received from the world at large.


100YSS: Building Tomorrow’s Instruments

The timing of the announcement that Voyager 1 has, for some time now, been an interstellar spacecraft came just before the 100 Year Starship Symposium and was certainly in everyone’s thoughts during the event. Jeffrey Nosanov (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) reminded a Saturday morning session led by Jill Tarter that when the Voyager program was conceived, the notion of going interstellar was the furthest thing from the planners’ minds. Voyager’s adventures beyond the heliopause are what Nosanov now calls ‘almost a completely accidental mission.’


How to follow up the Voyager success? For one thing, we already have New Horizons on its way to Pluto/Charon, with flyby in 2015, and I’ve already discussed the New Horizons Message Initiative, which would upload the sights and perhaps sounds of Earth to a small portion of the spacecraft’s memory after its encounters are done (see New Horizons: Surprise in Houston for more). But Nosanov asked Voyager project scientist Ed Stone, himself all but legendary in his association with the spacecraft, what he would like to see happen next. Stone said he’d like to see ten or a dozen spacecraft sent out in different directions to the same distance.

Image: JPL’s Jeffrey Nosanov, whose work now includes a study of next-step missions beyond Voyager.

Nosanov’s recently accepted proposal to NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program will examine just that scenario. What he plans to do is to design a spacecraft architecture that will probe what the project description calls ‘ the unique regions of the Heliopause, known as the nose, sides, tail, north and south.’ Flybys of the outer planets and Kuiper Belt objects as well as studies of the heliopause itself are what Nosanov has in mind, but he goes still further, looking toward reaching the Sun’s gravitational lens at 550 AU and beyond to study imaging of the center of the galaxy and other targets at various wavelengths.

State of the Universe

Speaking of working at various wavelengths, the morning “State of the Universe” session began with project scientist Adrian Tiplady discussing South Africa’s role in the Square Kilometer Array, itself a multi-national collaborative project whose 3000 small dishes will carry ten to one hundred times the traffic of the global Internet at any one time. The MeerKAT installation is a precursor for the full array, one whose 64 dishes will make it the largest radio telescope in the southern hemisphere until the Square Kilometer Array is completed some time in 2024. Extending across a number of African nations and into Australia, SKA will be fifty times more sensitive than any other radio instrument, a huge challenge in engineering as well as collaboration.


The State of the Universe panel was a lively session, held in the Hyatt’s ballroom and sparked by an enthusiastic Hakeem Oluseyi (Florida Institute of Technology), who offered an overview on our attempt to find dark matter and a whirlwind tour of the early universe following the Big Bang. Oluseyi sees the universe as a place that selects for life-forms that populate the cosmos because planetary existence is sharply limited by extinction events and resource depletion. “Intelligence is needed to move into space,” he added, “but the window of opportunity is finite. Single cell life-forms survive out of robustness, but complex beings need to exploit resources to move into space. Every life form on every planet is in a space race.”

Image: Florida Institute of Technology’s Hakeem Oluseyi, whose rapid-fire tour of the early universe challenged the skills of even this very fast typist attempting to take notes.

I’m skipping a lot of good material to compress this, but I do want to mention that the discussion of exoplanets by David Black (Lunar and Planetary Institute) and Ariel Anbar (Arizona State) brought the crowd up to speed on Kepler — now without fully functioning gyros but sporting a huge list of exoplanet candidates — and methods for studying biosignatures in the atmospheres of distant worlds. Jeff Kuhn’s discussion of the Colossus telescope was a fitting cap to the panel. Kuhn (Institute for Astronomy Maui) described an Earth-based instrument that could perform a census of nearby planets looking for unusual thermodynamic signals. Explaining earlier searches for Dyson spheres, Kuhn went on to discuss how civilizations use power, noting that we use half of one-tenth of one percent of the total energy our planet absorbs from the Sun. Power consumption increases, of course, as civilizations become more advanced.

The inevitable result: The thermal signals Colossus is being designed to look for. The Colossus Consortium, a private organization funded by a wealthy individual, is looking for warm exoplanets that display the heat signature of a functioning civilization. Kuhn’s slide showing Paris in the infrared, a nighttime shot taken by a satellite, drove home the point that the thermal signal we produce is significant, measurable and much larger than what we produce in light. The intention of the Colossus builders is to examine stars within 60 light years for such markers, which would be usefully free of our sociological speculations about what such a civilization might do.

Breakthrough Telescope Technologies

It’s a fascinating concept, and to see more about it, read SETI’s Colossus in these pages, or visit the Colossus site. What I like about it is that it makes no assumptions about why or how an extraterrestrial society might choose to communicate, but depends solely upon its activities on its own world. Joe Ritter, a colleague of Kuhn on Maui, went on to lead a track called “Destinations: Hidden Objects” later that day that delved into the difficulties in exoplanet detection and viewing. Ritter ran through Kepler’s woes and discussed Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope, and the lamented Space Interferometry Mission that may live on in missions like Darwin.

And with a gorgeous slide of the famous “Pillars of Creation” region in the Eagle Nebula, he also made the point that instrument effects limit our ability to see. Check the image below to confirm Ritter’s point: The bright star at center left does not actually have a cross-like shape, reminding us that diffraction spikes can swamp signals of faint objects in even the best of telescopes. Off-axis telescope designs, which he illustrated, can help in reducing diffraction — the Solar-C experimental coronagraphic telescope on Haleakala is an example of how this can be done.


Ritter went on to discuss the uses of polarization, describing forms of spectroscopy that can use polarization to scale away randomly polarized light and leave a more workable signal. With such methods we can hope to separate the light from an exoplanet from the light of its star. The PLANETS telescope (Polarized Light from Atmospheres of Nearby Extraterrestrial Systems) has as its goal to define the atmospheric composition of exoplanets. This one is a 2-meter off-axis telescope now under development at the Institute for Astronomy of the University of Hawaii.


Joe Ritter is a great conversationalist and we enjoyed kicking these and other ideas around after hours at the hotel bar. He’s fascinated with producing thinner apertures and how thin membranes as mirrors can be manipulated by tiny actuators to retain their shape. Polarized light at particular wavelengths can be used on the right materials to create adaptive optics in which the mirror doesn’t actually have to be touched to be re-shaped. Imagine a Hubble-sized mirror (2.4 meters) weighing in at no more than one pound, or a JWST aperture weighing twelve pounds. If we can make such giant apertures, we can use them not only for telescopes but for communications or, dare I say it, as solar sails. This work is so revolutionary in its potential that I’ve asked Joe to write an article about it for Centauri Dreams to explain it in more detail. “Brute force isn’t an elegant way to produce the mirrors we need,” Joe told me. And from what I can see, the work in his lab is both elegant and paradigm-shifting.

Image: Joe Ritter, a name you’ll be seeing much more of on Centauri Dreams in relation to his work on extremely light and thin telescope apertures.

Uses of Science Fiction

Saturday was the symposium’s last full day, so it was perhaps understandable that sessions ran over in the attempt to cram everything in. All of this led to one of the most entertaining episodes of the event, Marc Millis’ talk “From Sci-Fi to Scientific Method: A Case Study with Space Drives.” Marc frequently draws on his work as head of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project, but this talk is light on equations and long on imagery from science fiction films and how scenarios from such films can inspire creative thought.

An example: We constantly see spaceships in movies where the crew is walking around under what seems to be normal Earth gravity, and as far as we can tell, there is no problem with inertia even when the craft suddenly accelerates. Now if you could actually do that, Millis asks, why wouldn’t your plots take advantage of the fact? An intruder on board wouldn’t need to be handled by security forces. Instead, why not just manipulate the gravity in his location to bounce him off the walls, rendering him unconscious? And drawing on films ranging across the gamut of recent science fiction, Millis extracted scenarios and the questions they raised.

The more serious point is that even a bad science fiction movie can become a spur for thought that encourages new angles into old problems. The key is to promote creativity. Marc had to be amazingly creative himself during his presentation. When I arrived, the late-running panels in the ballroom meant that most people were still there. When Marc was almost at the end of his talk, the room suddenly filled with people, taking up the chairs and sitting on the floor. Without losing a beat, Millis simply went back to the beginning and presented the entire talk a second time. I do a lot of public speaking but I have to say this was something of a tour de force.


Image: Marc Millis amidst an impromptu reprise of his talk.

I wish I had been able to report on all the talks I attended in these pages but I didn’t have time to run through each. What a year this has been in terms of interstellar conferences. And we still have one to go, a Starship Century event to be held Monday October 21 at the Royal Astronomical Society on Piccadilly in London, with Royal Astronomer Martin Rees as a featured speaker. As I get more information about speakers at this one, I’ll pass it along, and will plan on covering the sessions via live streaming as my travel budget won’t sustain another conference this year.

It used to be that people interested in interstellar flight met in off-schedule gatherings at meetings on other subjects. The explosion of conferences this year is probably unsustainable, but it will be interesting to see what kind of schedule eventually emerges. In any case, it has been a year to remember, one that has put an exclamation point on deep space dreams capped by Voyager, our first interstellar traveler.


Time, Distance and Hybrid Engineering

One of the things I admire most about Eric Davis is his seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy. The man is constantly in motion. Davis (Institute for Advanced Studies at Austin) is active in both the Tau Zero Foundation and in Icarus Interstellar, and deeply involved in the propulsion community at numerous conferences, all in addition to his duties at IASA. He has also, for the past two years, served as a track chair at the 100 Year Starship Symposium, a role fraught with its own difficulties as it involves coordinating and reviewing submissions and dealing with presenters at the actual event. In Houston, Davis chaired the track “Factors in Time and Distance Solutions.”


At left is Eric Davis sitting across the table from me at Spindletop, the Hyatt Regency’s rooftop restaurant, which turns out to be quite good despite the fact that it rotates. Calvin Trillin came up with the applicable maxim: “I never eat in a restaurant that’s over one hundred feet off the ground and won’t stand still.” I’ve always found that to be a good rule but the Hyatt’s restaurant is an exception because of its superb seafood. In the photo, my wine glass is absurdly foreshortened — it wasn’t really that big — but the wine selection was first-rate and included the spectacular Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc. Forgive me for the digression, but for ten years I was a restaurant critic for a local newspaper and still have the habit.

Bridging the Interstellar Gap

At the first track session for “Factors in Time and Distance Solutions,” Terry Kammash (University of Michigan) ran through the basics of the rocket equation to show why chemical rockets were inadequate for deep space travel. Kammash is interested in a fusion hybrid reactor whose neutron flux induces fission, a system that could eventually enable interstellar missions. It is based on Gas Dynamic Mirror (GDM) methods that surround a plasma-bearing vacuum chamber with a long, slender, current-bearing coil of wire. The plasma is trapped within magnetic fields that control the instability of the plasma. Here it’s worth mentioning that a Gas Dynamic Mirror propulsion experiment in 1998 produced plasma during a NASA test of the plasma injector system, injecting a gas into the GDM and heating it with microwaves in a method called Electronic Cyclotron Resonance Heating.

Pauli Erik Laine (University of Jyväskylä, Finland) described himself as a computer scientist rather than a rocket scientist, but the two designs he presented were based, like Kammash’s, on hybrid propulsion systems. In Laine’s case, the method is nuclear thermal propulsion, as developed through the NERVA program coupled with nuclear-electric propulsion and a gravitational slingshot maneuver for initial acceleration. Laine also discussed fission fragment rocket technologies in which heavy and light fission fragments, rather than being dissipated as heat through conventional reactor methods, are used directly for thrust. A hybrid fission fragment mission added a solar sail and used multiple staging to achieve five percent of lightspeed.

It’s always great to run into old friends at conferences like these, and I was pleased to see Charles Quarra, who had presented his ideas on what he calls a ‘light bridge to the stars’ in Dallas at Icarus Interstellar’s Starship Congress. Charles is an independent researcher and software developer now based in Panama who has written up the idea of the ‘laser starway’ on Centauri Dreams (see A Light Bridge to Nearby Stars). The work extends earlier concepts by Robert Forward and Geoffrey Landis, solving issues of laser pointing accuracy by using multiple lenses spaced between two stars to deliver the needed high energy density.

My son Miles and I took Charles down the street that evening for a drink at Guadalajara, an excellent Mexican restaurant whose margaritas were impeccable (the grilled salmon tacos were likewise outstanding). While we enjoyed the atmosphere we talked about the starway, a concept that would require continual maintenance, but once built, would become like a highway system for future missions. We go from single missions toward building a long-term infrastructure, the same issue, Charles noted, that Roman engineers faced as they spanned bridges to connect the various Roman territories and provinces. Like the starway, the bridge building was a lengthy task but ultimately it reduced travel time and kept the business of the empire in motion.

The Uses of Curiosity

But back to the “Factors in Time and Distance Solutions” track, where NASA’s Harold “Sonny” White reported on his research on hyperfast travel through the expansion and contraction of spacetime. White ran through the model provided in the 1990s by Miguel Alcubierre and explained the notion that a ring of negative vacuum energy formed around a payload would create a warp bubble within which there are no tidal forces and clock rates remain the same during the journey as they do at mission control. One of the deal-breakers for such thinking has always been the colossal energies needed to optimize the topology of the warp bubble, which until 2011 had remained as high as the equivalent in exotic matter of the mass of Jupiter.

sonny and eric

Image: Sonny White discussing his ongoing work.

Basic to the idea is that while objects cannot move faster than the speed of light through spacetime, there is no limitation on the expansion of spacetime itself. The inflation of spacetime is indeed a feature of models of the early universe. A payload enclosed within such a bubble would thus ride a wave induced by expanding spacetime behind the bubble and contracting it in front. White’s work manipulated the shape of the bubble around the spacecraft, changing its shape and thickness, and noting that as these factors were altered, flat spacetime in the center was sacrificed but the amount of strain was reduced. The amount of energy needed is thus decreased by orders of magnitude, down to levels equivalent to the mass of one of the Voyager spacecraft by oscillating the intensity of the bubble and reducing the ‘stiffness’ of spacetime.

White’s hope is that the interferometer he has built at the Eagleworks Optical Laboratory will eventually be able to produce evidence of a tiny instance of this effect. The goal is to detect and measure the effect of this minute warp bubble on the optical path through the interferometer by measuring associated interference fringe shifts. A sister laboratory at South Dakota State University is likewise designed to make such interferometry measurements although it uses different techniques to measure the effect. “We now have separate labs working on this,” White added. “And we do have some results that indicate a potential change in the beam path length. But I want to stress that this is far from conclusive. We simply can’t say anything definitive yet. The plan going forward is to continue to investigate our software approaches, working with larger data samples to reduce vibrational noise.”

Showing photos of the current laboratory setups, White described the interferometer’s operation and then went into the concept of quantum vacuum plasma thrusters, a form of electrical propulsion that in theory could push off against the quantum vacuum. He used the analogy of a submarine propeller pushing off against water. The submarine doesn’t carry a tank of seawater; instead, it is actually immersed in its propellant. The Q-thruster attempts to push off against the virtual particles continually coming into and out of existence in the quantum vacuum.

I’ve been asked repeatedly to write about White’s work but my thought is that other than discussing his presentations at conferences like this one, the best approach would be to have him tell you about his work himself. Sonny is the kindest of men, and he readily agreed to write an article about what he is doing. I’ve asked Eric Davis to do the same thing: Both are involved in matters that go well beyond my expertise and are far better able to explain their work than I can.

White’s work in particular has become highly visible and remains controversial. In Dallas at Starship Congress, we went over to the hotel pool where cheeseburgers were on sale and enjoyed a leisurely meal and beer outside. I can still remember Sonny cringing when I told him about an email I had received saying “Now that Dr. White has solved the warp drive problem…”

“We have so far to go to find out whether this will pan out,” he told me then. “My work on all this came out of curiosity. Sometimes it’s good to pursue things just because you’re curious. It’s worth doing to see if we can learn something and we’ll see where these experiments lead.”

I’ll wrap up coverage of the 100 Year Starship Symposium tomorrow with a look at an excellent science panel moderated by Jill Tarter and a lively talk on the uses of science fiction in raising and probing scientific questions that was presented by Marc Millis. I ran out of time today before I got to Joe Ritter’s track on “Destinations,” so I’ll also be sure to get into that tomorrow. We do, after all, need to know where we’re headed.


Starting Up an Interstellar Civilization

Broadening the interstellar community through public engagement is something Centauri Dreams is all about, so I try to keep my eyes on emerging tools that support that effort. On that score, the 100 Year Starship Symposium in Dallas was provocative. John Carter McKnight (Arizona State University) was chair for the track “Becoming An Interstellar Civilization: Governance, Culture & Ethics,” and although I only had the chance to talk to him briefly, I learned about something called MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses. These interactive teaching forums support readings and video with intense interactions among students and teachers.

Serendipity always works its magic, and the very day I was starting to look into MOOCs, Tau Zero social media wizard Larry Klaes sent me news of a MOOC being offered at the University of Leicester. It’s not interstellar in nature, but Larry knows of my interest in the medieval world and knew I would be interested in a six-week interactive (and free) study of Richard III and his era, taught by the university’s Deirdre O’Sullivan, who specializes in medieval archaeology. For those similarly inclined, England in the Time of Richard III begins on November 25.


My concern about interactive courses has always been that they can be so easily degraded by spammers or trolls, but evidently the community is learning how to shut down such activities. Dr. McKnight described one course with over 16,000 participants that had successfully brought a number of graphic artists into contact with their fans, fellow artists and students. Obviously, if we can refine MOOCs into serious learning experiences, we can think about using them to reach broad audiences with courses in physics, astronomy and all aspects of interstellar flight.

Image: Social media specialist John Carter McKnight, a master of technologically-mediated spaces ranging from the gaming community to educational venues for spaceflight.

From Blue to Black Sky

Switching between tracks had me constantly changing rooms, but I stayed in McKnight’s track to hear Erika Ilves discuss how to go about starting up an interstellar civilization. Ilves is an innovation strategist and author interested in what she describes as ‘hyper-visionary ventures,’ about as apt a description as I can think of for organizations like the 100 Year Starship. Her multi-media book The Human Project (co-authored with Anna Stillwell) examines existential challenges and evolutionary opportunities for our species, a three-year project that puts forth an agenda leading to what she hopes will become a multi-planetary civilization.


One of the issues Ilves explores is how to accelerate the transition to this kind of civilization, one that ultimately becomes interstellar. On this site I’ve often spoken about the long-range challenges that should take us off-planet, from protecting the Earth from future impacts to investigating astrobiology in ever-widening spheres of exploration. But Ilves argues that engaging the public must also involve solutions to problems closer to home, such as advances in energy production and sustainable ecologies. Her definition of civilization is broad: “A cultural infrastructure designed for continued survival and evolution of Earth-originating minds in the universe.” Our ultimate goals should include seeding life and searching for it elsewhere.

Image: Erika Ilves, whose determinedly optimistic outlook on the human future draws inspiration from David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity.

On the near-term front, technological imperatives include human life extension, a deepened human presence in the Solar System, and a fully built-out global Internet, all of this building the basis for what we need to move outward: Fusion, engineered habitats in deep space and major advances in closed-loop ecologies. Her work examines the various fora for global public initiatives and entrepreneurs that can help lead to this result. Catalyzing the transition involves refocusing human attention out of inward-focused trivialities and into the kind of ventures that advance our civilization, and that means making the turn from ‘blue sky’ to ‘black sky’ thinking.

An Evolutionary Leap

Much of what Ilves said found resonance in Michael Paul Ziolo’s following talk, which focused on the evolutionary ‘long jump’ our species will take as it moves into permanent habitation in space, a jump that Ziolo believes is far greater than that taken by our distant ancestors when they moved from sea to land. Ziolo (University of Liverpool) is as compelling a speaker as I have ever encountered, a tall, rangy man who speaks with palpable enthusiasm and deep engagement with his subject. He sees our challenge as to develop a secure foothold in the Solar System before resource depletion and other constraints make it impossible for us to take this step.

I hadn’t been aware of the Rockwell Corporation’s Integrated Space Plan, which Ziolo displayed on-screen, but it was developed in 1989 to offer a long-term strategy for cooperative research that would lead to a permanent human presence in space (you can download a copy here). Ziolo sees it as a useful forerunner, a prototype that can be reworked through a networked, distributed computing model (think SETI@home), which would become a design tool as we move into a space society. Dr. Ziolo’s sense of urgency is palpable. In the lobby on the last day of the conference, I spoke to him about the imperative to get key technologies into place before what he describes as ‘constraint and error catastrophes’ set us back and make future progress unlikely.

I probably connect as well as I do with Dr. Ziolo because of his own background, which includes extensive work in medieval studies along with an interest in ‘psychohistory’ I can only describe as Asimovian — I was not the first to bring up the name of Hari Seldon from Asimov’s Foundation series, though I don’t recall Ziolo himself using it. In any case, a love of the medieval world rotates around the crisis of civilizational collapse following the loss of the Roman influence and the long era of recovery that follows. Medieval man, fortunately, was blessed with the kind of natural resources that a future society, experiencing the same order of setback, may not have at its disposal, making a return to space that much more unlikely.

Gaming Deep Space

So getting to work while the resources are still available is important. So is reaching the public with the message, and to cycle back to where this essay began, I want to mention Casey Hudson’s presentation at the Saturday lunch session in the ballroom. Hudson is doubtless known to many of you since he is executive producer for a gaming franchise called Mass Effect that a number of readers have told me about. I have no experience with gaming, probably because I spend the day in front of a computer screen and by the time the day ends, the last thing I am ready to do is park myself in front of another screen, whether game or TV. Give me a good book and I am happy, but the last computer game I played was a World War II submarine simulation called GATO that goes all the way back to the mid-1980s and was, I’ll admit, a lot of fun.


Image: Casey Hudson, whose talk on gaming effectively explored the technology’s potential for taking the interstellar message to the general public. Credit: GameInformer.

Hudson’s talk, illustrated with numerous clips from the Mass Effect games, was revelatory to someone who hasn’t been following the technology. With gaming getting ever more realistic in terms of graphics and interactive dialogue, it’s easy to see why a large population is hooked on Hudson’s product, and also heartening to think that such an interest could lead to motivating people into careers in the space sciences. And as Hudson noted, as we move closer to genuine artificial intelligence, games will become far more realistic, with characters interacting not through previously scripted responses but through original and unpredictable paths. An immersive 3-D environment coupled with such characterization would be a potent learning tool indeed as well as a font of popular entertainment.


Image: The Hyatt-Regency ballroom, where plenary talks took place, in the early morning Saturday before sessions began.

Tomorrow I want to get into Eric Davis’ track “Factors in Time and Distance Solutions” and Joe Ritter’s track on “Destinations,” along with notes on a variety of pleasant encounters with old friends as the symposium continued. As you would expect, Houston has some excellent Mexican restaurants, and the hotel-top restaurant proved superb, as Eric, Marc Millis and my son Miles and I discovered. More on all this and a wine reminiscence tomorrow.


100 Year Starship: Crossing the Disciplines

The 100 Year Starship Symposium forces an interesting conversation simply by virtue of its name. I learned this yet again this morning when I met a neighbor out walking his dog. He knew I had been in Houston and that the subject was space travel, but he assumed we must have been talking about Mars. “No,” I replied, “we’re actually talking about a much more distant target.” His eyes lit up when I described the Houston conference, and in particular when I talked about multi-generational efforts and what achieving — or even just attempting — them could mean.

The odd thing is, I get this reaction often when talking to people about interstellar flight. Sure, you’d expect the audience at the Houston symposium to be onboard with the idea of outcomes beyond their own lifetime, but I’m finding a genuine fascination with the idea among people who otherwise have no connection with space. I frequently lament the extreme short-range nature of modern society, but it heartens me to keep encountering what seems to be a hunger to overcome it. Maybe somewhere deep within all of us, not just a few of us, there is a hard-wired impulse to make a difference over not just the coming year but the coming century.

Let’s hope so, for if that’s the case, making the pitch for long-term thinking is going to bear fruit. The other definitional matter that the 100 Year Starship name brings up is the nature of the project itself. Is it a ship that will take a century to reach its target? Is it a ship that will be built in a hundred years? When my neighbor asked that one, I told him that what really counted here was finding out how to sustain an organizational effort over an entire century. At the end of that period we may be in position to build an interstellar craft, but we can’t know the timing. What we have to master is long-haul effort that gets handed off as needed to our descendants.

Maps and Dreams

I’m swiping the title of Hugh Brody’s wonderful book on traveling the Canadian sub-arctic (a must-read if you’re not familiar with it) to point to how one person’s mapping of distant landscapes leads to another’s fascination with the place and eventual journey there. Starship planning, obviously audacious and open-ended, is about constructing multiple pathways to attack the interstellar question. In her introductory talk, 100 Year Starship leader Mae Jemison emphasized the multidisciplinary nature of the effort, pulling from the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences as well as the humanities to engage the broadest spectrum of the population:

“We need to create and inspire and maintain an environment where starflight can eventually be achieved,” Jemison added. “We need to foster explosive innovation, technical achievement, and societal advances in economics, governance, behavior, and education, not just in the hard sciences. This won’t happen without engaging people across lines of ethnicity, gender, and geography. No one organization can do it all. It is an audacious, bold venture that won’t be led by naysayers or caution. We are here to squander ourselves, squander ourselves for a purpose.”


Image: Mae Jemison delivering her opening address at the symposium.

In the following talk of the plenary session, Loretta Whitesides, who along with husband George is looking toward the next generation of suborbital flight through Virgin Galactic (George is its CEO), told the crowd that the people who go to the stars won’t be us, but people much like us. The point she was making is that if we do manage to overcome the huge challenge of starflight, we will have managed it only by developing a community that can keep the effort going, transforming its participants in the same way the much-noted ‘overview effect’ has transformed so many space travelers by letting them see their own planet from a unique perspective.

This is a kind of societal evolution that takes place one mind at a time, but we can try to communicate it through public outreach and individual conversation. I’m reminded that Mae Jemison has said her own experience of the overview effect on her flight aboard Endeavour was slightly different than what some astronauts have reported. As she told the Houston audience, she naturally felt the deep connection many have reported with the blue and green Earth, but also a surprisingly strong connection with the cosmos that surrounded it. If it’s true that nobody shows a child the sky, maybe nothing but experience in space will gradually bring enough voices to this effort to reach the kind of cultural tipping point that can think and plan centuries ahead.

Disciplines and Strategies

All of this raises questions of focus: If one thing is clear, it is that no starship will ever be built without the propulsion system to drive it to its destination. And if it is to be a starship with a human crew, no starship will ever fly without our mastery of closed-loop living systems, a subject about which we have much to learn through theory and experiment. But focusing solely on propulsion and life support would ignore the fact that starflight will be transformational in every aspect of life. Thus the relevance of John Carter McKnight’s excellent track that addressed culture, ethics and governance, of Dan Hanson’s track examining how the effort at starship building could enhance life here on Earth and Karl Aspelund’s track on systems design.

The net was broadly thrown, with Jill Tarter’s ‘State of the Universe’ panel ranging from the construction of the Square Kilometer Array to a timely update on the progress of Voyager 1, while the ‘Trending Now’ panel led by Hakeem Oluseyi addressed everything from the Colossus telescope (a particular interest of mine) to Ronke Olabisi’s discussion of growing bones, meat and other organics in the laboratory. The science fiction panel led by Levar Burton placed starflight in the context of culture and asked how we are portraying it in fiction today.


Image: The lobby of the Hyatt Regency in Houston, quiet in this morning shot, but the scene of numerous conversations as the day wore on.

I have notes on all of these events and more, and as I go through them in coming days I’ll report some of them in greater detail. But talking to my neighbor this morning reminded me of the importance of pulling interstellar ideas across many disciplines even if some of these matters can be addressed no more than theoretically. Questions of ethics aboard a starship, for example, may seem irrelevant if we have no engine to fly the starship in the first place, but it’s important to recognize that it will take more than a single century to resolve seemingly intractable problems that, if they divide humans on Earth, could destroy them over the course of a multi-generational star mission. There is also something to be said for energizing the arts by setting high goals that in turn inspire the general public.

Learning how to build science advocacy organizations, something Louis Friedman did brilliantly with the Planetary Society and which he examined in a luncheon talk, will be crucial in sustaining an effort that lasts centuries or more. So we need to be pulling in ideas across the disciplines. I’ll close today by quoting Kathleen Toerpe (Northeast Wisconsin Technical College), who is deeply involved in multidisciplinary activities for space through her work with the Astrosociology Research Institute. I’ll use her own words rather than my more fragmentary notes, lifting them from a recent comment she posted on this site in early September as she prepared to make the trip to Houston:

I’m one of those humanists and social scientists you’re including in this grand mythos of interstellar travel and I thank you for your very warm welcome to the adventure! Some of us are gathering under the umbrella of a newer academic field called “astrosociology” – a multidisciplinary group including sociologists, philosophers, poets, historians, psychologists, artists, etc.- all of us passionately researching, exploring and anticipating the human dimensions of space. We’re uncovering what connects the science of space exploration with the individuals and societies that undertake it and with the broader humanity that it intends to benefit. Our work directly benefits scientists and space research while it creates greater public awareness, knowledge, and hopefully, support for continued exploration. Myths are, by their nature, collaborative narratives. It is in community that they are created, shared and wield their power. Your reflections challenge us all to transcend disciplinary boundaries and collaborate even more profoundly toward our space-faring future.

Conferences are energizing but in some ways frustrating — there is always more to do than anyone can fit in, and multiple tracks kept me hopping from one room to another. I particularly wanted to talk to Dr. Toerpe about what she was doing at the Astrosociology Institute but failed to catch her at the right time (though I’ll try to talk her into writing something about the Institute for Centauri Dreams). Tomorrow I’ll move on in my coverage of the 100 Year Starship Symposium to review some of the discussions both in the track sessions and the panels.