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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.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Bob Andrews September 24, 2013, 10:49

    Excellent post Paul, wish I could have been there. I’m reminded of some words of our Sir Patrick Moore, RIP, a National Treasure here and sadly missed;- ” I am not claiming that space interstellar travel is impossible. All I am saying is that it is impossible by any method known to us at the moment, which is by no means the same thing. We may be no further from, say, teleportation than King Canute was from television.” Space Voyager No.14. Page 33. Wise words I think and best wishes to all concerned for the successful Symposium..

  • william f collins September 24, 2013, 16:50

    Great topic, Paul! I plan to look up the Astrosociology Institute website as I have always had an interest in these areas. Bob, the late Sir Patrick Moore’s point was a sample of going for the long haul in regards to interstellar space travel, – King Canute was doing his thing in the very early 11th century 900 + years prior to the invention of television! It may be 50 years or 500 years before the first probes or human piloted starships launch.

  • Paul Gilster September 24, 2013, 17:18

    William, I’m glad to say that Kathleen Toerpe has agreed to do an article for us on the Astrosociology Institute, so we’ll have more information soon. I’m looking forward to learning more about it.

  • Christopher Phoenix September 24, 2013, 18:46

    Sounds like the 100YSS symposium was pretty exciting… I’d love to visit a symposium like this one in person someday. Until then I’ll have to depend on your blog to bring me all the interesting details… thanks for your excellent work on Centauri Dreams, Paul!!

    Regarding Sir Patrick Moore’s views on interstellar travel, he seems to have been very pessimistic regarding the human capacity for surviving generational voyages… which is a valid point. Developing thin-film solar sails able to fling a large vessels on millennium-long trajectories to Proxima Centauri won’t enable human interstellar travel if we can’t survive a thousand years sealed in a tin can in space. Of course, there are faster options- maybe a fusion pulse rocket craft could manage the trip in a mere century, far more survivable in human terms. And there is the incessant obsolescence postulate to consider as well.

    We could argue with Sir Patrick that relativistic travel is not impossible, just very hard from the engineering standpoint, and would avoid the need of multigenerational trips. Sir Patrick Moore would probably have taken a realistic, and less-than-optomistic stance on how difficult it is to accelerate a material craft to a fraction of C, in terms of the limitations of rockets, energy requirements, and the difficulty of shielding the craft from collisions with interstellar dust and debris.

    Sir Patrick Moore believed that interstellar travel would only be enabled by some sort of fundamental breakthrough- in his words:

    I don’t think we’ll see interstellar travel until we make some sort of fundamental breakthrough. We can’t do it with rockets or our material means. Perhaps a space warp, time warp, teleportation. That may happen tomorrow or it will never happen, until it does we’re stuck here.

    This attitude may be more common amongst critics of generational and relativistic starflight than you would think… in one paper on the infeasibility of photon rockets, after strongly criticizing the idea of relativistic rocketry, the author writes the following.

    The stars cannot be reached with nuclear fuels, nor with any kind of super-ultra-extra-material, not with any photon rocket. Something unknown is needed. Something as unknown as the atomic power station was to Pithecanthropus.

    A naive, unreasonable, childish, but ineraticable faith in this unknown remains with me, and, undoubtedly, with every man of this century.

    Source: V. Smilga (1960) There Will Be No Photon Rocket, Znaniye Sila (Russian) Nr. 7 , 1960, pp 31-33

    Personally, I think we should support research into both the starship designs based on our currently understood physics and into research into proposals of the more exotic, “breakthrough” kind… it is important to explore all possibilities for human advancement in space. It is also important that we be honest with ourselves. While some proposals might be unworkable due to the very difficult engineering requirements (like relativistic ramjets) other, only those proposals actually allowed by physical law can exist. So, for now, time warps and teleportation are off the table… but you can’t predict what will happen at the frontiers of physics. As Sir Patrick said, it could happen tomorrow, or it could never happen.

  • Rui Rosenhal September 25, 2013, 1:17

    I leave here a question for the organizers of the simposium and all movements toward interstellar travel:
    In all your discussions did you also aboard the most simple and important think to do (and also less expensive) that is to start inputing the matter and also new curses into schools about this? I mean teaching children and preparing them to develop ideas since young age?

  • Patrik Mörée September 25, 2013, 2:05

    Considering the problems we often have with getting along in small project groups over the course of a few months, the prospect of planning centuries long missions does look a little scary. But hey, it won’t get done if you don’t start somewhere.

    Anyhows, thanks for the updates, appreciate it!

  • Ron S September 25, 2013, 10:12

    Christopher: “…relativistic travel is not impossible, just very hard from the engineering standpoint, and would avoid the need of multigenerational trips.”

    Multi-generational trips are not avoidable even with very fast travel. Once you get to your destination you have nowhere to live except on your spacecraft. It will take many, many years to create a natural (open), habitable environment on any planet. Enclosed colonies on a planet are no different than a spacecraft habitat and so do not count.

    Propulsion breakthroughs do not eliminate the need for self-contained, long-lasting human habitats.

  • Paul Gilster September 25, 2013, 10:35

    Rui Rosenhal writes:

    In all your discussions did you also aboard the most simple and important think to do (and also less expensive) that is to start inputing the matter and also new curses into schools about this? I mean teaching children and preparing them to develop ideas since young age?

    Education came up frequently in Houston, and it is also an imperative for the Tau Zero Foundation, although so far we have been looking at supporting graduate student efforts. But yes, for all the groups, I think, the idea of reaching young people with a message about deep space is crucial. And certainly in Houston there was much talk about strategies for education and public involvement, some of which I discuss in the following post.

  • Christopher Phoenix September 25, 2013, 21:49

    @Ron S “Multi-generational trips are not avoidable even with very fast travel. Once you get to your destination you have nowhere to live except on your spacecraft.”

    Unless, of course, you have arrived at a quasi-Earthlike habitable planet with surface conditions that humans can comfortably adapt to, and a local ecosystem that is not so incompatible that we cannot strike a balance with it- i.e. the favorite planets of Star Trek. :)

    Some study has gone into the idea of finding and eventually reaching habitable (for humans) planets- see Stephan Doles Habitable Planets for Man (1964). I wouldn’t rule out the idea until we have more data on exoplanetary systems- but there likely will be complications we can’t yet foresee on such a planet, even if such exist nearby.

    I agree, closed-cycle life support systems are a must not only for interstellar travel, but solar system exploration and settlement. You just can’t carry all the consumables you need with you, or have it sent up like with the ISS. Even an FTL starship will run into the day when there are no twinkies and air filters left in the glove box.

    But, if heroic multi-generational terraforming projects are required to settle a certain exoplanet, I’m not sure there is a point traveling there. We already have planets like that in the Sol system.

    I recall reading a book that touched on terraforming Venus to make it a more livable place. First, the atmosphere would have to be stripped or otherwise processed, so that the planet would no longer be so hellishly hot. A tall order. But then, it would be necessary to “spin up” the planet so that it could have a proper day- and the surface of the planet would take hundreds of years just to cool off enough for us to think about introducing Earth life!! Ouch!

    So much for just releasing some CO2 eating microbes into Venus’s atmosphere to turn it into a paradise…

    It seemed to me at this point that the common SF idea of setting out in starships to find habitable planets in other solar systems made more sense than terraforming, at least for Venus. The energy requirements of launching a big starship are much less than spinning up an entire planet.

    Mars is a more likely place to terraform than Venus, but it might take a century just to thicken the atmosphere… and even once we introduced algae and plants, the planet would not be truly Earthlike for even longer. Assuming that the atmosphere didn’t just start eroding away again.

    Traveling tens of trillions of miles just to spend the next twenty generations fooling with space mirrors or trying to spin up planets doesn’t sound so inviting. A generation ship probably won’t even have the resources for such endeavors, especially after a long crossing.

    Planetary selection for starship missions is likely to favor planets that, if they are not Earth-like, are at least compatible with the requirements of humans… no super-Venuses or arid, airless hyper-deserts.

    And don’t forget the other options… we could use genetic engineering to create humans adapted to a difficult environment, instead of trying to alter the environment.

  • Eric W.Davis September 26, 2013, 1:11

    Superb write-up, Paul. Now I know what I was missing while I was stuck chairing my own track. I brought up the educational outreach issue with Mae at the science board meeting last Thursday. Basically, that can’t happen until she reaches a high enough threshold of revenue to support it, and there is a long list of other projects that need to get done before there is enough revenue and labor available to implement the type of educational outreach that I envision for K-12, undergraduate and graduate levels. I would prefer to see the TZF be the leader for interstellar flight science education and establish the standards by which this gets implemented and executed. And keep in mind that we have to broaden that educational curriculum to include the soft sciences as well as the hard sciences. Manned interstellar flight requires an integrated multi-disciplinary approach.

  • stephen September 27, 2013, 22:00

    How many here have seen the new George Clooney movie, Gravity? I haven’t. It has been getting good reviews, but I wonder how it will affect public attitudes about space exploration.

  • ljk October 18, 2013, 16:05

    Ex-astronaut aims for stars as travel destination

    By ERIC BERGER, Houston Chronicle

    Updated 8:57 am, Friday, October 18, 2013

    HOUSTON (AP) — Most people can’t fathom the vast distances between the sun and even its closest neighbors.

    Consider the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which earlier this year made international headlines after becoming the first man-made object to depart the solar system after nearly 40 years of zipping away from Earth. Were the sun in Houston and the nearest star system in Los Angeles, Voyager would have traveled less than one mile of an interstellar journey.

    The interstellar chasm is so great it’s audacious — some might say preposterous — to consider sending humans to visit worlds around other stars.

    But Mae Jemison, a former astronaut, is having the time of her life dreaming just that dream. “All my life I’ve liked challenges,” said Jemison, the first black woman to fly in space.

    This seemingly crazy notion of flying to distant worlds has begun to shake off some of the “giggle” factor in recent years, however.

    Foremost, in 2011, U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and NASA’s Ames Center offered $500,000 to an organization willing to begin thinking about and planning a mission to a nearby star.

    “The 100 Year Starship study is about more than building a spacecraft or any one specific technology,” Paul Eremenko, Defense Advanced’s coordinator for the study, said at the time. “We endeavor to excite several generations to commit to the research and development of breakthrough technologies … to advance the goal of long-distance space travel but also to benefit mankind.”

    A group organized by Jemison won the grant and created the 100 Year Starship program, based in Houston.

    Full article here: