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Leafing Through Early Interstellar Ideas

Although John Jacob Astor IV did many things in his life — as a businessman, builder, Spanish American War veteran and financier — his place in history was secured with his death on the Titanic in 1912. His was actually one of the three hundred or so bodies that were later recovered out of over 1500 who died, and he is buried in Trinity Church Cemetery in New York City. Less well known is the fact that Astor was a writer who, in 1894, produced a science fiction novel called A Journey to Other Worlds in which people travel to the outer planets.


I’ve been digging around in this curious novel and discovered an interstellar reference that was entirely new to me. Using a form of repulsive energy called ‘apergy,’ variants of which were much in vogue in the scientific romances of this era (think H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, which uses gravity-negating ‘cavorite’), Astor’s crew sets out on the Callisto to explore Jupiter and Saturn, where various adventures ensue. Along the way, his travelers see Mars’ moons Deimos and Phobos and begin to speculate:

“Either of those,” said Bearwarden, looking back at the little satellites, “would be a nice yacht for a man to explore space on. He would also, of course, need a sun to warm him, if he wished to go beyond this system, but that would not have to be a large affair–in fact, it might be smaller than the planet, and could revolve about it like a moon.”

Image: John Jacob Astor (1864-1912) in August of 1909. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Bearwarden’s companion Cortlandt thinks this over and decides an object as small as Deimos couldn’t maintain an atmosphere. Better, then, to create a small sun and travel along with it in a spacecraft rather than a moon or asteroid:

“It would be better, therefore, to have such a sun as you describe and accompany it in a yacht or private car like this, well stocked with oxygen and provisions. When passing through meteoric swarms or masses of solid matter, collision with which is the most serious risk we run, the car could follow behind its sun instead of revolving around it, and be kept from falling into it by partially reversing the attraction. As the gravitation of so small a sun would be slight, counteracting it for even a considerable time would take but little from the batteries.”

Conspicuously left out of the discussion is how such a small ‘sun’ would be powered, but we can forgive Astor for not anticipating Hans Bethe’s 1939 work on how fusion powers stars. Instead, he has a third character muse about creating a violent collision between two asteroids that would cause the new-made object to become luminous, which pleases an enraptured Bearwarden: “Bravo!” said Bearwarden. “There is no limit to what can be done. The idea of our present trip would have seemed more chimerical to people a hundred years ago than this new scheme appears now.”

Science fiction author and critic Richard Lupoff has speculated that Astor drew ‘apergy’ from Percy Greg’s 1880 novel Across the Zodiac, in which an anonymous narrator uses a kind of anti-gravity to travel to Mars aboard a spectacularly large spacecraft. In any case, Astor’s novel is fun to dip into in places, offering in addition to space travel a look at the world of 2000, a time in which the great project on Earth is to shift the planet’s axis, a job undertaken by the Terrestrial Axis Straightening Company to eliminate the extremes of Earth’s climate.

An Early Look at Suspended Animation

Lupoff’s book Master of Adventure is the source of his thinking on Astor. It’s also a delightful read for anyone interested in the life and works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who came startlingly to mind after I wrote last Monday’s entry on Carl Sagan and Iosif S. Shklovskii (see Two Ways to the Stars). The duo had speculated in their book Intelligent Life in the Universe that high pressures and controlled temperatures could be the key to freezing humans for long transit times, taking advantage of ice II, which has about the same density as liquid water, as opposed to normal ice, which could disrupt human cells in the freezing and thawing process.


I suddenly recalled an old Burroughs story called “The Resurrection of Jimber Jaw,” which ran in Argosy in 1937 — it was later reprinted by Lupoff himself for Canaveral Press in Tales of Three Planets. Burroughs’ characters, forced to land their plane in Siberia after mechanical trouble, find the frozen body of a caveman who is eventually returned to life. His adventures in America — he becomes a professional wrestler! — lead to an unhappy romance and he winds up re-freezing himself in a meat locker, asking not to be re-awakened. But before then, he gets off a number of comments about modern life that would not sit well with today’s sensibilities.

Various forms of freezing and suspended animation populate early science fiction going back to 18th Century romances like L. S. Mercier’s Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred and moving forward to H. G. Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes (1899). Robert Heinlein would use suspended animation to great effect in one of my favorite of his novels, The Door Into Summer (1957), but magazine science fiction is packed with stories using the trope. There is Laurence Manning’s “The Man Who Awoke” (Wonder Stories 1933) and A. E. van Vogt’s classic “Far Centaurus” (Astounding, 1944), where the protagonists survive a long voyage only to learn that faster than light travel has been invented while they were enroute.

Recently Adam Crowl looked back to rocket pioneer Robert Goddard’s thoughts on suspended animation. In a short note titled “The Ultimate Migration,” written in 1918, Goddard had seen two ways for humans to reach the stars, the first being the use of atomic energy to accelerate an asteroid that had been hollowed out to serve as a spaceship. But if this didn’t work, tinkering with human cells might do the trick:

…will it be possible to reduce the protoplasm in the human body to the granular state, so that it can withstand the intense cold of interstellar space? It would probably be necessary to dessicate the body, more or less, before this state could be produced. Awakening may have to be done very slowly. It might be necessary to have people evolve, through a number of generations, for this purpose.


Goddard goes on to speculate about an immense journey in which the pilot is ‘animated’ once every 10,000 years, or at even longer intervals for longer journeys, so he can correct the spacecraft’s course. He also addresses the issue of how to build a clock that would survive such long time-frames and control the re-awakening of the pilot. The question of long-lived time-pieces is, of course, one that’s under intense investigation at the Long Now Foundation, which is engaged in the process of building a 10,000 Year Clock in the mountains of west Texas, a project conceived by Danny Hillis in which Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has already invested some $42 million.

Image: Robert Goddard (1882-1945). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Even 10,000 years might not seem long-term compared to some of the journeys Goddard contemplated. And what if we aren’t the only intelligence that sets about creating such missions? Adam Crowl closes his post with this intriguing thought:

…the idea of flying between the stars as mummified cryogenic life-forms has a strange allure. To travel the stars so, we would needs become like human-sized ‘tardigrades’ or ‘brine-shrimp’, both of which can undergo reversible cryptobiosis in a mostly dessicated state. Even if we can’t do so (reversibly – it’s not too difficult to make it permanent), might there not be intelligences “Out There” who have done so? What if we found one of their slow sail-ships? Would it seem like a funerary barge, filled with strange freeze-dried corpses?

There’s fodder here for more than a few science fiction stories, the creation of which is an impulse that runs through the entirety of our post-Enlightenment encounter with technology. We plug in the science of our own time in making the attempt to sketch out a future, knowing all too well that we’re only guessing at the discoveries that could change all our assumptions. That’s why I love the rich history of science fiction. It’s a genre that lets us try ideas on for size and work them through to their consequences, all the while reminding us of how much we have to learn.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ljk November 22, 2013, 13:49

    In his 1951 SF novel, The Sands of Mars, Arthur C. Clarke had a group of Mars colonists somehow ignite Phobos into a second sun to make the Red Planet a more livable world:


    Although the protagonist’s long slumber had nothing to do with technology or interstellar travel, there is Edward Bellamy’s famous novel from 1888 titled Looking Backwards, where a man from the 19th Century wakes up in a socialist utopian Boston in the year 2000.


  • ljk November 22, 2013, 13:53

    Fritz Zwicky’s Solar Starship

    Here’s an unusual method of interstellar flight – don’t bother building a starship, just use the Sun itself to take you there.

    In principle it is not quite as crazy as it may at first sound. In a sense, our Sun is already a ‘starship’, taking its retinue of planets, including us, on a journey around the Milky Way Galaxy that lasts 225–250 million years per orbit, moving at 230 kilometres per second. Just thinking about that motion makes me feel dizzy.

    Taking this in mind, the brilliant but somewhat eccentric astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky once proposed using the Sun as an engine to take us to the alpha Centauri system in 2,500 years. His idea was based around firing particle beams or ‘pellets’ at the Sun to create a hot spot in the solar photosphere where fusion reactions could take place. This would lead to powerful flares and eruptions that would begin to nudge the Sun in the opposite direction. Of course, letting off flares could potentially be hazardous, should a massive coronal mass ejection be accidentally be pointed towards Earth.

    Full article here:


  • David Cummings November 22, 2013, 14:52

    Interesting that Jimber Jaw wanted to go back to the freezer after a failed romance. I would have suspected more of a Cremation of Sam McGee attitude towards the cold after his long experience in the ice. :)

  • Christopher Phoenix November 22, 2013, 18:04

    Interesting post, Paul… it is always fun to dig around in the old SF stories to see what you find!

    John Jacob Astor IV’s speculations are intriguing- his spacecraft accompanied by a tiny artificial “sun” supplies both a source of heat and light to sustain the travelers during a long journey away from their home sun, and means to protect against impacts with cosmic debris. Both are problems real starships face, and Astor’s imaginary spacecraft solves them in a rather ingenious and striking manner.

    Of course, he is a tad bit unclear on how to power such a sun- and fusion reactions cannot sustain themselves in so tiny an object. It is funny that Deimos is considered as a potential starship and then rejected. The idea of an asteroid ship has been oddly popular over the years.

    One wonders how long Astor thought such a journey would take. Albert Einstein’s landmark paper on Special Relativity, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” (1905), was still nine years away when A Journey to Other Worlds (1896) was published, so it wasn’t yet known for certain the C represented a top speed you cannot match or exceed.

    And speaking of asteroid ships, I see that Goddard speculated on propelling a hollowed out asteroid with atomic energy. A nice idea, but I suspect that real starships will tend to save on mass rather than drag around leaky stone hulls… though the asteroid would be a nice source of raw materials on the journey.

    One problem with the immense flight while freeze-dried that Goddard speculates about is, ironically, related to atomic physics- specifically naturally occurring radioactive atoms in the human body. While in a suspended state, the astronaut’s cells presumably will not be able to repair the damage done by radioactivity within his or her body as they do normally. Over the centuries this damage will accumulate. This means astronauts will have a shelf life, and may have to be reanimated occasionally to repair the damage if another solution can’t be found.

  • Alex Tolley November 22, 2013, 19:07

    @ljk – Doesn’t Benford and Niven’s “Bowl of Heaven” also have a novel approach in directing the star’s energy to create directional thrust?

    Lucky the cosmos seems so empty, otherwise lots of fast driving suns would need navigation lights. :)

  • Brett Bellmore November 23, 2013, 9:24

    Christopher, I think the radiation limit on cryonic suspension has been estimated at about 1000 years. Now, if you knew far enough in advance, you could go on an isotopically purified diet. Only Potassium 40 and Carbon 14 are likely to be of any concern, and with most of the former in your bones, you’d likely have to begin the diet in early childhood. So anybody who was going to go on a long trip that way would have to be prepped well in advance.

    I’m presuming that any really long interstellar trip is going to be one way, which suggests that you’d need a rather large crew to sustain any kind of cultural stability, even with gene banks to provide genetic diversity. Perhaps you’d just go with the 1000 year limit, and the crew would spend 0.1% of their time animated along the way.

  • A. A. Jackson November 23, 2013, 10:16

    I had forgotten about Phobos in the Sands of Mars, that seems like quite a blooper for guy with a degree in physics.

    He did have the Monolith Makers add enough mass to Jupiter to initiate thermonuclear ignition. It’s kind of complected but one need something like ~100 Jovian masses.
    I have a many body program that simulates the solar system and made Jupiter 100 times more massive.
    First Jupiter’s satellite system falls out of the sky very quickly, then the whole solar system comes apart in a few years!
    So those Monolith Makers would have to have worked some celestial mechanics magic in order to keep order!

  • Gregory Benford November 23, 2013, 15:46

    Alex Tolley:
    Indeed, BOWL OF HEAVEN takes the idea of using a star as the propulsion to its logical end. There’s more about how it works in the sequel, SHIPSTAR, out next April–but I couldn’t get all the calculations in, even though I show some charts and calculations in the Afterword. SHIPSTAR concludes the sequence, too. I never got to mention that the mirrors reflecting sunlight back onto the star are in fact phased arrays–optically! A technology we don’t have yet.

    Our strategy in the books (& why there are two) is: most things the characters (and we hope, the readers) believe in BOWL OF HEAVEN turns out to be wrong in SHIPSTAR.

  • stephen November 23, 2013, 18:12

    Larry Niven suggested that with a Dyson sphere lightyears in diameter, enclosing a galactic core, the atmosphere (on the outside) could be many lightyears deep.

    “We put the biosphere- on the outside this time. Surface gravity is minute, but the atmospheric gradient is infinitesimal… The Megasphere would be a pleasantly poetic place to live. From a flat Earth hanging in space, one could actually reach a nearby moon via a chariot drawn by swans, and stand a good chance of finding selenites there. There would be none of this nonsense about carrying bottles of air along.”

    But I think it would take the mass of several galaxies to pull that off, wouldn’t it? How deep should the shell be?

  • Christopher Phoenix November 23, 2013, 18:14

    @Brett Bellmore Yeah, but the 1000> year limit stands in the way of interstellar trips using chemical rockets for 60,000-20,000 years per light year, for sure. Fortunately we now know that both light-sails and nuclear energy can work to shorten the trip to a more reasonable timespan.

    Only Potassium 40 and Carbon 14 are likely to be of any concern, and with most of the former in your bones, you’d likely have to begin the diet in early childhood. So anybody who was going to go on a long trip that way would have to be prepped well in advance.

    I’ve heard that suggestion before, and it is a rather interesting solution. I wonder how much it would cost to remove all radioactive isotopes from a child’s diet… radioactive atoms are all around us, and taken up by all the food plants we eat, so filtering them out will be an interesting challenge. I also wonder exactly what this will entail- merely the filtering of radioactive atoms out of their diet, or will the astronauts have to be isolated in a sealed environment?

    There is the slight hurdle of having to choose the crew when they are still in early childhood, and then invest great effort in preparing them for the trip. The potential crew won’t be getting much choice in whether or not to join the interstellar crew if they are chosen so young. Even if they got to choose whether or not to go once they were adults (which might not be the case, since they would be wasting all the effort that went into preparing them if they choose not to go), they still had to spend their childhood in a carefully controlled environment being poked at by medical technicians. It would be like growing up in a petri dish for someone else’s really interesting lab experiment.

    All the same, it is a fascinating idea. Imagine being prepared from childhood to embark on a millennia-long low-velocity galactic exploratory or colonization mission. Sure gives new meaning to career week, ha ha.

  • Rob Henry November 23, 2013, 20:45

    I loved the idea of removing C-14 and K-40, but feel why go to the bother of growing humans from birth, when dissolving and regrowing the skeletons of consenting adults is more ethical, and provides a second massive advantage that I will proceed to outline…

    It we try to accelerate a human normally, only about 10g are possible in the short term and about 3g for longer. If we fill all airspaces with a fluid of appropriate density and the lungs with one that can carry oxygen then we should be able to go to 20-100g before its density difference with body tissue causes the skeleton to rip from its body. Replace bone with cartilage and reduce adipose tissue to a minimum and we should be able to go closer to 10,000g.

    Jules Verne may have been on to something.

  • Andrew Palfreyman November 23, 2013, 21:29

    Could someone please direct me to any published papers on using sunlight for serious propulsion with light sails? This would be a system employing mirrors with directional control, and seems at first engineering blush to be capable of delivering petawatt-scale beams with an aperture of a few kilometres. By criss-crossing our solar system with a web of such steerable beams, we can achieve fast interplanetary travel and avoid the higher cost of petawatt laser arrays. This also provides a highly effective launch platform for an interstellar lightsail mission.

  • Eniac November 23, 2013, 23:37

    I also wonder exactly what this will entail- merely the filtering of radioactive atoms out of their diet, or will the astronauts have to be isolated in a sealed environment?

    There is a nice table on background radiation here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Background_radiation

    I think the comment by Brett about potassium occurring mostly in bones was mistaken. Potassium is an electrolyte (like sodium) and is exchanged very quickly. Calcium is sequestered in bone, but even that, I think, is only a small part of all calcium, the rest is also an electrolyte. Besides, there is no natural radioactive isotope of calcium that would be of concern.

    It would seem, then, that a relatively short time on isotope-purified diet could do the trick. This would still be extremely expensive, though, and the diet would not exactly be rich and varied, for that reason….

  • Brett Bellmore November 24, 2013, 8:37

    Since both Potassium and Carbon enter your tissues only through your food, you’d have to be on a special diet, but not otherwise isolated. This would only be an issue after we were in space in a big way, perhaps a special space habitat would be established where the entire life support system was isotopically cleansed on a continual basis, so that anybody who lived there would be capable of long term suspension. This would require rather large scale isotopic processing, of course, but we’re talking manned interstellar travel, everything is big.

    Such processing might eventually become popular anyway, as the “kinetic isotope effect” can be used to achieve non-trivial life extension by the selection of certain isotopes in food, especially in childhood. (Molecules composed of heavier isotopes are more stable, and if your diet is enhanced in them during early developmental stages, long term molecules that don’t turn over last longer.)

  • Rob Henry November 24, 2013, 20:43

    Eniac, I hate to point out that your worry over K in bones is due to a simple grammatical error by Brett Bellmore involving word transposition. Hint: there is heaps of carbon in bones.

  • Mephane November 25, 2013, 4:45

    I don’t see how to change a star’s orbit around the galactic core without also slowly disruption the orbits of its planets by only accelerating the star itself. A solar system is not something solid, after all, if you add some delta V to the star, the planet’s don’t magically get the delta V, too, but will lag behind, orbits may become more elliptical with potentially hazardous gravitational inter-actions in the long term.

    I suspect the only way to do that safely would require accelerating everything simultaneously, star, planets, moons, even asteroids lest harmless trajectories possibly intersect with the orbit of where you live. And I don’t think this could ever become a partical solution. If you are capable of doing that, you already have the resources to contruct massive world ships, for example.

    And even if we assume that a civilization managed to change the galactic orbit of their entire solar system, in order to visit another system there will still be the need for an interstellar transfer vehicle, you don’t want two systems get too close too each other.

  • A. A. Jackson November 25, 2013, 11:08

    I remember reading Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama in 1972 and being surprised. I was a 20 year ‘veteran’ of prose SF at that time, and felt I had read all possible STL ideas, but Clarke (bless him) made me think anew.
    He said somewhere he had the idea germinating for a long time. Another surprise is I thought maybe he was over the hill, because as fine a masterpiece as I thought 2001: A Space Odyssey , as film was, I registered a little disappointment with Clarke’s novel.
    (I am not real fond of any Clarke novel after Rama, even tho 2010 is passing good.)
    Rendezvous with Rama seemed as fresh as Clarke’s novels of the 1950’s.
    The novel was a continuation of Clarke’s fascination with his Stapleton-oian influences. The Ramans (if that’s what they were called) were not as transcendent as the Monolith Makers or The Overmind of Childhood’s End, still an advanced alien civilization.
    I liked the way Clarke subtly addressed the Fermi Paradox with the Raman’s indifference. The crew that explores Rama never really meets a hostile reception , the Ramans are blasé about intruders , not even seeming to mount an automatic defense system.
    The idea that Raman civilization , individuals and artifacts, might be stored in ‘solid state’ banks was new to me.
    It may have been done before 1972 , after all ‘matter transmission’ goes back a long way . Even the ‘transporters’ of Star Trek (an idea borrowed from prose SF) implied the possible storage of an Avogadro’s number of bits of information… actually a bit more information than that.
    I just did not keep up with all SF in the late 70’s and after 1980 hardly at all… but I am guessing this uploaded to solid state memory (or maybe something more sophisticated) has been used in prose SF extensively…
    Still Clarke sure told a sophisticated ripping yarn with one of the most intriguing Slower than Light interstellar travel stories ever.

  • Eniac November 25, 2013, 23:08

    Rob Henry: The mineral in bone is hydroxy apatite (Ca5(PO4)3(OH)), which contains no carbon. The organic components are presumably exchanged at a decent rate, but I am not really sure.

  • Rob Henry November 26, 2013, 16:30

    Yes Eniac, to a first approximation, the mineral in bone is hydroxy apatite, but to the next it is almost 10% calcium carbonate. The collagen in bone provides much of the elasticity. It is a major structural component, but its actual proportion varies. Its turnover is very low, as to make study pointless, but here is a study of the cartilage in intervertebral discs.


    Note that, even here, the rate for someone in the 20-40 age bracket would extrapolate to a halflife of a hundred and forty years, then slows further.

  • Eniac November 27, 2013, 19:42

    Rob: It appears that you are correct. If the trace amounts of natural C14 in bone and cartilage are enough to make a difference, it may indeed make sense to put astronauts-to-be on an isotopically purified diet at an early age, perhaps at birth. Completely synthetic food for you entire life. Shudder! Enough to make you think twice about going at all….

  • Rob Henry November 27, 2013, 22:24

    Eniac I go back to consent being the killer here – its nature (in sequestering babies) would be so different from ours that Western Civilisation would be dead by definition. Thus I prefer to look at bones as being organs with one of the highest potentials to be regrown (at least I think they will be).

    If it helps, collagen’s half-life in other tissue is much lower, typically a few months to a year, so we might be able to dissolve bone and replace it piece by piece in vivo (just a thought).