≡ Menu

Musings on Starship Congress 2013

Centauri Dreams readers will be familiar with Kelvin Long as a contributor here and as the author of Deep Space Propulsion: A Roadmap to Interstellar Flight (Springer, 2012). But the indefatigable Long has a broad range: He is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Institute for Interstellar Studies, former Vice President and co-founder of Icarus Interstellar, Managing Director Stellar Engines Ltd and Chief Editor of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. Fired with enthusiasm after the recent conference in Dallas, Kelvin took a new tack in this piece, wanting to communicate the experience of immersion in the new interstellar movement.

by Kelvin F. Long

DSC01933We huddled in this place, gathering our kindled fires and showing them to each other “look what I made”, “look what I discovered”, each with a gleam and a tear in the eye as we thought of the visions of vessels that could travel across space to other places and other times. This was the gathering from across the planet Clarke called Ocean, although the inhabitants of its lands knew it as Earth. They travelled and arrived, with expectations and excitement brimming to the boil as the presentations rolled out one by one, over a packed and eventful four days.

Boy and girl, young and old, we spanned over a century in the history of the human timeline, sharing our experiences, knowledge and wisdom, laughing and crying at the truths revealing themselves to us as the whispers and the breath left our lips and entered the ears and minds of each other. We talked about technology and engines of all types; riding the light of beams, or sailing on an electromagnetic wind from the Sun, or energising the atoms of hydrogen, to release those little photons of energy. Those timeless particles, which contain the very tease that they can travel at speeds we can only dream of. One of our own called Albert, out of a place called Bern, forbids us joining their frolics and we must forever stay bounded to the speeds of particles of matter. But others have alternative ideas, to reverse the charge of matter itself, and in a laboratory to see the cosmic curvature warped.

We gnashed our chins about space probes, big and small; the size of Moons to the size of pins, there was no limit to the meaning of a Starship in our minds eye. They all had structure, payloads and engines of some sort and everyone had their favourites, defending them like kids harking on about their favourite sport cards in a sticker book. The forces of nature were used in their fury, all to be bent, twisted and perturbed by the power of our mentality. Magnetic and electric fields to move excited charges, nuclear forces to harness energy for power, and gravitational forces to tame those dark stars of the deep, from which only a singularity grows and light is forever trapped within an eternal prison, from which mirages of relativity play out in the optics of our eyes. All obstacles to the goal were seen as that, obstacles to be climbed or loop-holed, there was nothing that could block our path to the pin pricks of light in the night. Our ambition knows no boundaries, and indeed we are Kings and Queens of infinite space, and we are not bounded by any nutshell.

The very definition of technology was debated and placed in the context of a living architecture, and not just in the perspective of inert constructions devoid of process in themselves. Our convergence with it was seen to continue ever more, as we rushed towards the future together, towards a dualistic landscape where the separation between us, and them, become blurred and even meaningless. In such a future of possibilities, how can we think to extrapolate as to what and when might occur? How can we conceivably fathom what is at the end of the road, when we are yet to even set forth on the journey?

The existence of “them” was thought through, and our possible encounter should it ever come to be. Some would have us shout now into the darkness “we are here come find us” whilst others would have us be silent and utter a hushed discrete tone. Are they waiting for us? Is there no-one? Let’s go see we said, let’s build vessels made of matter and energy to cross space and time and have these aged old curiosities slain to the books of our encyclopaedias. And what might we learn? That we are very small and really nothing of significance, or that we are similar to them, struggling to survive and prosper in the great Universe of age, as the Starmaker moves on dispassionately, perhaps to create another one of its other experiments and to begin the cycle yet again.


Image: George Abbey Jr., Rob Swinney, Kelvin Long and Andreas Hein at Starship Congress. Abbey and Swinney are deputy directors for the Institute for Interstellar Studies. Hein is director of I4IS technical programs.

And for the first time, many came together, not for themselves, but on behalf of others, in a congressional session. Questions were posed, designed to tease out views, to create conditions of discomfort so that reasoned debate may be afforded, to fully scope that space. All people were civilized, courteous and wise, no fighting over electronic devices so that the world could hear just them, but all were to be heard, so was the consensus. We are one people, from this planet called Ocean that contains a little dirt; yet, we fight over that dirt, and seek to own one spot so that another cannot have it. But the grand adventure of the stars forces us to see beyond that measure, to see ourselves in a different context, not as a divided people, but as one with a common ancestry and in harmony with each other. Our trajectory is co-joined, the stars call us loudly across the void of the deep, and we answer in no uncertain terms; “We… are coming”.

The Starship builders – we are the dreamers of the future and the children of the renaissance Master. We see no boundaries to our desires and we are strong and steadfast in our vision to see it achieved. There is no holding us back, we are an ever present tide, an ever arriving force, and though we may drift from time to time from our path, we will always long to return to our goal and see it continued, because that is the compass of our migration, to return from whence we came.

I’m asked for my recollections of Starship Congress 2013 and I could tell stories of what was said and who did what. But it’s better to convey the emotion of the event, to place it in the context of its humanity, that we were there, and we…were moved. Oh what hope we can hold for our species when we do things like this, what optimism, what power we have over ourselves. Let’s have more of it, let’s talk, lets travel, lets design, lets calculate, let’s build…let’s be one people facing the challenge of the stars and see it solved in this generation or the next. Our equations play music to us, as they sing the song of the Starship, and we each try to compose a melody that resonates to the challenge, and thereby claim “Eureka! I have got it”. But no, we have all got it within ourselves and this then is our task – to put fires in the bellies of all the people of the world, to liberate them from their monotonous existence and shout “WAKE UP!….DON’T YOU KNOW THE STARS ARE CALLING YOU TOO?”


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Rob Flores September 9, 2013, 12:09

    Paul G.
    Maybe I mised it, but were there any talks regarding human hibernation
    strategies,goals, experiments?. It’s good to have multiple research paths to a goal (slow,fast,FTL warp. interstellar travel).
    We can all agree that we could do slow travel now as long as it was to a destination that had a potentially habitable planet. Certainly no farther
    than 30-50 LY and somewhere in the .05c-.1c speed range. It would take
    an global effort, apollo style.
    But since I am doubtful about a good earth analouge being nearby, hibernation technology is one of those research items we could do now.
    Finding and testing such a techology that allows say 10-12 years of sleep
    would be a huge boon. Short of waiting for millenia for more efficient interstellar ships to be built, I don’t see away of making a colonizing effort
    without Deep sleep tech. That tech combined with a future propulsion advancement allowing 40% C, would place a plethra of systems in range.

  • Paul Gilster September 9, 2013, 12:11

    Rob, I don’t recall anything on human hibernation — maybe Kelvin will recall if it came up at some point. But I’m in agreement that this is an important strategy when we’re considering mission times as long as interstellar flight demands. I’m curious, too, to see whether hibernation comes up next week at the 100YSS conference in Houston.

  • David Cummings September 9, 2013, 13:41
  • Alex Tolley September 9, 2013, 15:00

    @Rob – I didn’t catch anything about hibernation on the symposium videos either. I do think we should be careful about what we mean by “hibernation”. Mammalian hibernation usually is for short periods, a few months, and the animal is just sleeping deeply but still metabolizing, albeit at a slow rate. That will not work well for 30 ly flights at 300 years. For that we need cryopreservation and restoration. As we’ve discussed before, whilst small animals (poikilotherms) do survive freezing, and we may be able to freeze human organs. But we are a long way, if ever, of freezing individuals and then reviving them. If we could, reliably, then this would indeed obviate a lot of the problems for human star flight.

    But we can put single cell organisms, some multicellular animals and most plants into stasis via spores, seeds etc. We’ve recently seen 250my bacteria revived from salts and ice age plants revived from seeds. This suggests that absent radiation damage, they have the longevity we need for slow flights. Similarly we can do the same with machines, although I do not know how long they could be similarly stored.

    Absent new physics, what we can be sure of is that the smaller the ship, the smaller the economy needed to build and launch it, the earlier it will launch. To me, that means that the preferred approach should use the “smaller, cheaper, [faster]” mantra. In Kevin’s prose, that would be my favorite sports card.

  • Rob Flores September 9, 2013, 16:21

    Granted A. Tolley, but I dislike the term Suspeded Animation.

    I think a sucessful Deep Sleep technology will involve some metabolism
    but at rate that is just enough to keep neurons firing, beacause I suspect
    something very much like Alzeimer’s would happen to those who are woken
    from a ‘Glassification mode (.AKA suspened animation). In summary what
    we are acually looking is the equivalent of relativistic time dilation induced
    by chemical means.
    And please no more Mouse model experiments, they are just terrible at predicting Primate responses to biological manipulation. Unfortunately
    for Jane Goodall, Higher and Higher primates would have to be used to
    confirm progress in this field. I know that Rhesus might be an accetable
    model but I would not trust my life to it, unlike a chimpanzee.

  • Doug M. September 10, 2013, 10:22

    Well, now that it’s over, here’s a question. Armen Papazian, first winner of the Alpha Centauri award. I actually watched his talk and did a bit of online research on him. AFAICT, his economic theories are… unique.

    Would anyone care to talk about what made him the winning candidate? I’m sincerely curious.

    Doug M.

  • Kelvin F. Long September 10, 2013, 14:19

    Hi Guys,
    Thanks for the comments. Here are some replies.
    Rob/Paul, I don’t recall any talks on human hibernation. Its definitely a subject not discussed much in our subject these days. I agree with the multiple research paths that you advocate Rob. Good distinction made between hibernation and cryopreservation by Alex.

    Doug, the Alpha Centauri Prize “Proxima award” was given on this occasion, to the presentation which had the most potential, to influence interstellar flight over the next century, technologically or economically. Armen gave a very powerful performance as a speaker, whilst also articulating his arguments. There were three judges who made this decision. The award wasn’t necessary an endorsement of the specific economics plan proposed, but more of an acknowledgement that this is the kind of thinking and approach that will have the big impacts. I’m not an economist to judge the details of the plan, so maybe the model needs some tweaking, or some variation on it, you will have to discuss this with Armen. But, it was a well-received award and a surprise to many that it went to an economics presentation instead of just some technology thing. I think that was nice and shows that our community is open minded and also keeping an eye on the bigger picture of problems.

    I would like to finish again with a congratulations note to Icarus Interstellar for organising such a wonderful meeting in Dallas, which was filled with technical content but also artistic culture, all on a tight budget. That’s the way you run an interstellar meeting.

    Best wishes
    Kelvin F.Long

  • Etienne September 14, 2013, 2:12

    Magnifique essai ! On y sent un puissant souffle cosmique et la force vitale de l’humanité qui s’élance vers les étoiles.

    Via Google Translate:

    Wonderful job! One feels a powerful cosmic breath and life force of humanity as it rushes to the stars.

  • david payton September 16, 2013, 1:25

    I cant t recall the book but i read a story about hundreds of starships sent out with machines that could build and incubate humans. These ships would then teach the people created to do the jobs that needed to be done to insure their survival. The “mother” ship had all the archives of earth at its disposal. With the recent 3D printing of living tissue, and stem cell manipulation to repair tissue something like this might not be that far away. Building living tissue from basically scratch machines could create the humans once it got to its destination thus negating the need for such massive radiation shielding and worldship sizes and architecture. No need for life support systems. No need for food or light or living spaces. The machines themselves could even be dormant until a strong enough solar energy source was detected. It vould land and gather energy start the process, bringing along enough genetic material to create the diversity needed to maintain a healthy population and then teaching its young humans how to communicate back with its parent civilization so that it could become more advanced than when the ships left… might be a good idea if we learn of an impending extinction level event early enough to dosuch a thing also…

  • ljk September 16, 2013, 20:48

    Starship Congress: A Very Human Interstellar Journey

    AUG 19, 2013 07:21 PM ET // BY IAN O’NEILL

    It can be hard to justify the need to explore interstellar space, but on Aug. 15-18 nearly 200 interstellar scientists, engineers, astronomers, historians, economists, architects, artists, anthropologists and enthusiasts descended on Dallas, Texas, for the first Starship Congress, a meeting organized by the non-profit organization Icarus Interstellar, to explore the possibility.

    Four days of inspiring talks seemed to converge on one conclusion: We, as a species, need to reach for the stars, lest we decay from being a race of explorers to a myopic civilization that never fulfills its full potential.

    But wait, it was 42 years ago since the last human walked on the moon and we currently seem to be having anxiety problems about getting humans to push beyond low-Earth orbit so we we send robots to explore our solar system — isn’t any discussion on the feasibility of traveling to a nearby star a little fanciful? Shouldn’t we be focusing all our attention on wiping out poverty on Earth, finding cures for cancer and striving toward world peace? Space exploration is, after all, just a luxury.

    Full article here: