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Interstellar Flight in Congressional Report

I hadn’t planned the conjunction of the Breakthrough Starshot forum’s opening here on Centauri Dreams and the interesting news out of the NASA budget for 2017, but some things just fall into your lap. In any case, what happened in Washington makes a nice follow-up to yesterday’s post, considering that it calls up visions of fast probes to Alpha Centauri, and in a document coming out of the U.S. House of Representatives, of all things. As more than a few readers have noted, it’s not often that we hear interstellar issues discussed in the halls of Congress.

Call for a New Interstellar Study

The specifics are that space-minded John Culberson (R-TX), who has championed space exploration with abandon, has made sure that NASA will look at the possibilities of interstellar travel. Culberson chairs the House of Representatives sub-panel in charge of NASA appropriations, and the call for interstellar study comes in a report that accompanies the bill establishing the agency’s budget for the coming year. You can see the report as submitted by Culberson online. Let me quote the relevant paragraph. First, the statement of the problem:

Interstellar propulsion research.—Current NASA propulsion investments include advancements in chemical, solar electric, and nuclear thermal propulsion. However, even in their ultimate theoretically achievable implementations, none of these could approach cruise velocities of one-tenth the speed of light (0.1c), nor could any other fission-based approach (including nuclear electric or pulsed fission).

Now the call for study:

The Committee encourages NASA to study and develop propulsion concepts that could enable an interstellar scientific probe with the capability of achieving a cruise velocity of 0.1c. These efforts shall be centered on enabling such a mission to Alpha Centauri, which can be launched by the one-hundredth anniversary, 2069, of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Propulsion concepts may include, but are not limited to fusion-based implementations (including antimatter-catalyzed fusion and the Bussard interstellar ramjet); matter-antimatter annihilation reactions; multiple forms of beamed energy approaches; and immense ‘sails’ that intercept solar photons or the solar wind. At the present time, none of these are beyond technology readiness level (TRL) 1 or 2.

And finally, the course to follow:

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program is currently funding concept studies of directed energy propulsion for wafer-sized spacecraft that in principle could achieve velocities exceeding 0.1c and an electric sail that intercepts solar wind protons. Over the past few years NIAC has also funded mission-level concept studies of two fusion-based propulsion concepts. Therefore, within one year of enactment of this Act, NASA shall submit an interstellar propulsion technology assessment report with a draft conceptual roadmap, which may include an overview of potential advance propulsion concepts for such an interstellar mission, including technical challenges, technology readiness level assessments, risks, and potential near-term milestones and funding requirements.

Notice a couple of things here. First, keying a major effort to a significant anniversary is interesting as a motivational driver. Hence the call for reaching the goal of a launch by the one-hundredth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. As noted in these pages at the time, Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Starshot was announced in conjunction with another such milestone, the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight. Humans love to link big ideas with major events in the past as a way of goal-setting and, I suppose, putting a new idea into a broader context.

Note as well some of the parameters. Culberson talks about a spacecraft reaching ten percent of lightspeed, while Breakthrough Starshot goes for twenty percent. And while Starshot focuses tightly on small sails driven by phased laser array, Culberson’s call to NASA incorporates propulsion concepts ranging from sails to antimatter and even Bussard ramjets. Moreover, the report makes a nod to fusion-based propulsion as studied by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program (NIAC). NASA is called upon to submit a technology assessment within a year of the enactment of the budget bill.

Dr. Forward Goes to Washington


If any of this sounds familiar, it may be because the only other time interstellar flight was considered in the U.S. Congress at any level of detail was when Robert Forward made an appearance before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications of the House Committee on Science and Technology. That was in 1975, when interstellar flight was rarely discussed outside of science fiction magazines, and the work of scientists like Forward appeared largely at conferences where interstellar issues were only a small part of the proceedings. There was, of course, no Internet, and media attention was scant.

Forward’s “A National Space Program for Interstellar Exploration” was as ambitious as it gets, calling for the launch of automated probes to nearby stellar systems by the turn of the 21st Century, with manned exploration to commence a scant 25 years later. With a budget that today seems modest, Forward called for ‘a few million dollars a year’ during the initial study phase, climbing into the multi-billion dollar range as the program began launching its first automated probes. As always, Forward thought big, as witness this:

Development of man-rated propulsion systems would continue for 20 years while awaiting the return of the automated probe data. Assuming positive returns from the probes, a manned exploration starship would be launched in 2025 AD, arriving at Alpha Centauri 10 to 20 years later.

Image: Interstellar theorist Robert Forward, whose work on beamed propulsion began in the early 1960s.

All that is by way of placing Rep. Culberson’s call to NASA in historical context. What Forward didn’t have when he made his recommendations was an ongoing privately funded effort like Breakthrough Starshot to offer a parallel track of development. It would be fascinating to know how he would have played that card. Breakthrough Starshot aims to spend its $100 million endowment on shaking out the basic concepts involved in a sail mission to Alpha Centauri. Forward would have been all over its phased laser array concept and we’re the poorer for not having his insights, especially on the issue of Earth- vs. space-based deployment.

The parallels between Culberson’s report and the Starshot studies are interesting if only in that both make reference to Philip Lubin’s work at NIAC on beamed propulsion. Lubin (UC-Santa Barbara) is a major figure in the Starshot effort, but his work goes back several years at NIAC, and thus offers ideas to both projects. Moreover, the Starchip concept — a ‘nano-spacecraft’ — being studied by Breakthrough Starshot is heavily dependent on Mason Peck’s work at Cornell, which also has had NIAC support. So NASA can draw on NIAC.

In the broader sense, though, both NASA and Starshot owe their inspiration on the propulsion side to Forward and the many colleagues who developed the core ideas of beamed propulsion over the past fifty years. Beaming to a sail has long been under investigation, though never so publicly. In the near future, I’ll be publishing an extended take on the history of these studies and how we have arrived at today’s laser sail concepts.

Sailship V8

Image: A beamed lightsail as envisioned by the space artist Adrian Mann.

Will NASA and Breakthrough Starshot duplicate each other’s efforts? It’s not likely given current funding constraints, and whether it’s based at MSFC Huntsville or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the NASA effort outlined by Culberson calls only for an assessment of an interstellar mission. But having interstellar flight’s new media prominence so prominently reinforced by its introduction into a Congressional report on the NASA budget can’t hurt as we launch a serious look at what it takes to reach Alpha Centauri. We’ll soon learn what kind of synergies may exist.

Forward’s presentation to Congress can be found in “A National Space Program for Interstellar Exploration,” Future Space Programs 1975, vol. VI, Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications, Committee on Science and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, Serial M, 94th Congress (September, 1975).


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • yelka2 May 26, 2016, 9:15

    What about looking for oxygen in exoplanetary atmospheres? Is this possibility still being pursued? (I’m not a scientist, just an interested citizen).

    • Paul Gilster May 26, 2016, 12:36

      Absolutely. The search for oxygen and other biomarkers is going to define future space telescope work when it comes to astrobiology.

    • Ryan MacDonald May 31, 2016, 5:25

      I work on characterising the atmospheres of exoplanets.
      The short answer is that oxygen (or more specifically ozone) detection is a subject of active theoretical research but is not possible with current instruments in practice. However, a number of excellent target worlds around M-dwarf stars have recently been discovered (e.g. the TRAPPIST 1 system) that should be feasible for O3 detection using James Webb if they are observed repeatedly (>~40 transits) over a number of years.

  • Brian Brady May 26, 2016, 10:19

    I guess 2016 is the year we get serious about interstellar travel. Fine with me.

  • Greg Matloff May 26, 2016, 10:49

    Interstellar things are indeed becoming very, very interesting. As a newly appointed Advisor to Project Starshot, I have been evaluating the performance of monolayer photon sails that are highly reflective rather than absorptive or transparent. If we can engineer such things and learn how to manufacture them in sufficient quantity and sizes for reasonably low cost, interstellar concepts will become a lot more realistic. I hope that a well funded research effort will pinpoint both issues and opportunities.

  • Richard Burke-Ward May 26, 2016, 10:56

    I always get excited when governments and politicians start talking about visionary space exploration… Then a few years down the line, I realise that the excitement amounted to nothing.

    The only visionary space project announced by a western politician that ever got realised was JFK announcing the Moon Programme. He was elected late in 1960, made the announcement in May 1961 – and, very significantly, set a deadline of the end of the decade, when he could theoretically still have been in power. And this was against the backdrop of huge cold war paranoia, when people genuinely believed that there was a *race* involved.

    Contrast this with George W Bush announcing a Mars mission. Or Obama’s goal to land on an asteroid… Where are we now with those? Next to nowhere. There are two massive incentives lacking, and they are interlinked:

    1. No single president stands a chance of seeing the project through;
    2. The various bodies that must approve finance don’t have a big bear (that the public is afraid of) hulking over their shoulder.

    In other words, even if the executive can get an initial budget together, there is no one in the finance oversight community who will see it in their political interests to see the thing through over the long term.

    If we had the modern equivalent of a Russian bear, then maybe. If it could happen in the lifetime of a single president, then maybe. But without BOTH of those, this is surely just froth. Some money will be spent, then everything will fizzle, 1/3 complete, and already overspent.

    In this respect, democracy sucks. A 5 year election cycle means it’s in no one’s interests to think long-term.

    I’m not a cynic by nature, but I’m old enough that my idealism (I REALLY want this stuff to happen!) is tempered by memories of disappointments past.

    That’s why Breakthrough Starshot is exciting: it’s not dependent on the self-serving political interests of appropriations committees (I’m a Brit – is that what Americans call them?), the political cycle, economic shifts, changing priorities… I think we have a great deal to thank our dot-com-generation billionaires for. They have the freedom to be visionary – and they have the wherewithal to see it through.

    Should we put all our hope in them? Nu-uh. Should we put all our faith in government funding? ROFL! Should we maybe put our faith in China (no elections!)? Hmmm…

    Another brief aside: Paul, you mention Robert Forward as being someone who could contribute to the Breakthrough project in terms of whether the phased laser array would be in space or on Earth. I’d love it to be in space because of the huge spin-off benefits it would generate for manned and unmanned space exploration… But surely no one ever going to allow that to happen?

    A beam of that power down here on Earth can only point out into space… A beam that powerful space is basically a weapon. With sufficient ingenuity / hacking , it can point back at Earth. I realise that technically this is incredibly unlikely because we’re talking about a flat array facing at least roughly towards Alpha Centauri, but try telling that to a state premiere with a rabble s/he can rouse. The potential for protest, and especially for state-on-state conflict, is immense. It’s just not going to happen if it has to be in space. Sad, but true.

    Yours, idealistically, but tinged with realism,


    • Stan Erickson May 27, 2016, 0:20

      All this just confuses me. I think I must have missed the tomes that describe the value of going to other stars. It certainly can’t just be because it would make some techno-geeks happy or because there might be spin-offs from developing some included technology. What is the goal we are seeking to accomplish?
      If the goal is figuring out something, where is the tradeoff study between shooting something out there and waiting a long time, versus building a possibly cheaper very large observatory, and gathering all that information more quickly?
      There is something to be said for remote observation:

      • Jacopo Agagliate May 27, 2016, 9:43

        At the risk (well, certainty) of sounding terribly corny, they’re right next to the tomes that push dozens of climbers towards the heights of deadly mountains throughout the world and sometimes their fate. Next to the tomes that spurred generations of humans to experience as much as possible of this planet of ours despite knowing full well that we’re too small to ever possibly embrace all of it. Perhaps next to the travel guides that you bought when you decided that watching documentaries wasn’t enough anymore: you had to see for yourself.

        We “techno-geeks” (really?) know full well the potential and usefulness of ever more powerful instruments and telescopes. It’s a potential that’s been celebrated multiple times on this very blog. But it is not what we’re talking about here. We crave for apples, and you peddle us oranges.

      • Joe May 27, 2016, 10:17

        There is no place in our solar system where humans can live a normal life except on Earth. Only Earth has breathable air, acceptable gravity, etc. The value of going to other stars is the possibility of discovering another Earth-like planet that humans might visit or live on someday.

        • Alex Tolley May 27, 2016, 13:56

          Which is why the O’Neill space colony approach seems much more realistic for human expansion. Controlled environments that are tailored to humans with far more potential living space. No prime directive concerns, or long term terra-forming needed. All connectable into a solar system economy.

          Lebensraum will not be a reason to go to the stars, unless star travel to suitable worlds becomes very easy.

          • Joe May 27, 2016, 21:26

            I think O’Neill space colonies are vastly overrated. In a previous entry I mentioned the problems of spinning a space station to simulate gravity. There is also the problem of growing food. A previous contributor to Centauri Dreams listed all the challenges of growing food on Mars. It would be even harder on an O’Neal colony. Fresh water would have to be carefully rationed for agriculture, drinking, bathing etc. Air quality is a problem too. The constant odors on the International Space Station are well known. An O’Neill colony would be a lot like living on a submarine. You can put up with it for a 60 day cruise, but do you really want to live on one permanently?

            • Joe May 28, 2016, 9:13

              Just another thought on agriculture on space colonies or arid planets like Mars: Most of the colonists are likely to be astronauts, scientists, agronomists, IT experts, etc. And yet farming requires a lot of unskilled labor. Who is going to pick the crops on an O’Neal colony? Who is going to clean out the toilets and turn shit into fertilizer? (It’s harder than you think to do this in a sanitary manner that doesn’t result in an e coli outbreak.) Who is going to slaughter a chicken or a steer to provide meat for the colonists?

              It’s easy to envision a communist dystopia where unpaid “volunteer” labor is required of the high tech colonists in order to meet agricultural production goals.

              • Alex Tolley May 28, 2016, 13:05

                Perhaps the most suitable colonists would be farmers – classic Heinlein.

                Who is going to pick the crops on an O’Neal colony?

                Haven’t you ever even had a vegetable garden or greenhouse to manage? Believe it or not, it can be an enjoyable activity when it isn’t forced labor. Large scale agriculture is already being highly automated, with robots designed to even pick strawberries. My guess is that indoor, vertical, urban farms will provide the model for colony farms, and may well be highly automated.

                As for shit-shoveling, do you do that now? Colonists won’t be doing a Watney to fertilize their crops. There are far better ways to organize organic solid waste processing and recycling.

                Infrastructure takes time. Initially colonists will live on shipped supplies, just like the original American and Australian colonists. They will start to supplement this with locally grown food to add fresh foods to the diet. Eventually this will become self-supporting agriculture.

                Similarly, water and waste recycling will become increasingly sophisticated and automated. No doubt then, as now on the ISS, astronauts will have to get their hands dirty to fix a blockage. Unpleasant yes, but that will be part of the life of colonists.

                Once a colony gets going, the original astronaut settlers will become an increasingly small minority, replaced by the new generations who know no other life.

                • Joe May 28, 2016, 19:27

                  Well, yes. By the time we are actually able to build a space colony technology will no doubt have improved a lot. But to see just how far we have to go there is this quote from the Biosphere 2 attempt at living in a closed ecological system: “Biosphere 2 was only used twice for its original intended purposes as a closed-system experiment: once from 1991 to 1993, and the second time from March to September 1994. Both attempts ran into problems including low amounts of food and oxygen, die-offs of many animal and plant species, and squabbling among the resident scientists and management issues.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biosphere_2

                  • JoeG May 28, 2016, 22:35

                    They’re going to need lots of illegal robot farm workers for those space farms… seriously, there will probably be massive hydroponic systems circulating a lot of water and nutrients… an intensive system rather than “sh!t shoveling” by low skill workers… your average space farmer is more likely to be sitting in front of a computer monitoring CO2 levels than plowing moon dirt… FYI, using modern agriculture methods it takes on average, about 1 farmer to feed 155 people. If dey make da Hawaii nei O’neill space colony, dey better have a Zippy’s, yeah?

                  • Alex Tolley May 28, 2016, 23:30

                    Bear in mind Biosphere II was an experiment in a self-sustaining biosphere encapsulating different biomes as well as maintaining the life of the inhabitants. Small scale was one issue, as well as the difficulty in isolating the biomes as they would be on Earth. A colony can use a range of mechanical and chemical means to stabilize the living environment, as it isn’t trying to simulate nature.

                    It may well be that idyllic landscapes are not possible and that it will be more like living in a huge mall with lots of plants. If so, then so be it.

                    As a more realistic view of an off world colony, I highly recommend Ian McDonald’s novel: Luna: new Moon. The description of the underground lunar habitats strikes me as very much the model I would envisage as a design concept.

            • Alex Tolley May 28, 2016, 12:44

              If we cannot build an O’Neill, then world ships are off the table for interstellar travel. While I am not wildly keen on worldships, I think you are far too pessimistic. Even a few houseplants can help reduce smells in a house, and the Elysian 1970’s/80’s designs for O’Neills depicted a rich Californian or Hawaiian landscape.

              While such colonies are not trivial to build, if anything the technologies we are developing will make them easier now that when they were proposed.

    • Jacopo Agagliate May 27, 2016, 5:25

      Have to agree on all accounts – it’s all good and exciting now but then a few years down the line management will have changed, a new budget review will roll in and all of this will fade to nothing. I think projects like these have a chance of working (barring private endeavours or a planned economy) only if taken above the national level and into an international context, where the participants in a way police one another and make sure that everyone involved is fulfilling its part in the task. And even then, look at projects like Skylon: it’s both feasible and revolutionary as it gets, but of all things one of the dangers it faces is irrelevance due to lack of demand in increased launch capability. That is to say, that apparently there isn’t so much stuff to do in space after all! As a space exploration enthusiast I can’t even PROCESS this idea, and yet these are the hurdles that such projects face time and time again. It’s all too easy to become cynical about space exploration, and for good reason. I’m not even 30 years old and I’m already quite convinced that all the exploration humanity will ever witness beyond Earth orbit within my lifetime will be through the pictures of a bunch of probes (here’s to another dozen Mars rovers each one drilling one centimeter deeper than the one before).

  • Giulio Prisco May 26, 2016, 11:57

    Re “First, keying a major effort to a significant anniversary is interesting as a motivational driver. Hence the call for reaching the goal of a launch by the one-hundredth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.”

    I was 11 on July 20, 1969. I thought Apollo 11 was but the beginning of a permanent human presence on the Moon, and then Mars and the planets. We all did. Now we all know that the Moon program was abandoned three years later and we never went back.

    To me it is a sad anniversary, the anniversary of the first episode of a forgotten show of the past. I don’t drink much these days, but I think I’ll get drunk on July 20, 2019 (omg, it’s almost 50 years).

    I won’t make it to July 20, 2069, but I hope the space thing will start again by then (Arthur C. Clarke said it should really have started in the 21st century, not the 20th) and our children will watch the launch of the first star probe with wonder and great expectations.

  • Alex Tolley May 26, 2016, 12:15

    Isn’t Culbertson’s proposal unfunded, and therefore just publicity seeking? At this point, Milner’s $100m funding for the investigation of Starshot is by far the overwhelmingly dominant funding for interstellar propulsion. If Lubin’s lasers gain enough traction, that is, DoD interest, I’m sure more substantial funding will follow.

    In some senses, Nasa is appearing increasingly irrelevant in manned spaceflight. SpaceX announcement of an unmanned landing of their Dragon capsule on Mars in the 2018 time frame and a manned landing sometime in the 2020’s, eclipses Nasa’s own late 2030’s time frame which many see as unlikely to materialize. If SpaceX succeeds (a big “if”), Nasa may as well reorient itself to path finding and technology development and leave the actual work to commercial firms instead. Perhaps starflight propulsion concepts might be a worthy goal, although I think that might be a bit far off for the agency.

    What I haven’t heard is Icarus Interstellar’s reaction to Starshot, as I thought they were taking a very different path. Has it changed their thinking or focus at all, or is Starshot somewhat tangential to their design goals?

    • Paul Gilster May 26, 2016, 12:37

      You’ve hit the nail on the head — NASA gets an unfunded mandate while the $100 million for Starshot is already in play. I don’t know about the Icarus reaction to Starshot, but some of the Icarus team read Centauri Dreams, so maybe one or more can comment.

    • Giulio Prisco May 26, 2016, 12:56

      Re “Isn’t Culbertson’s proposal unfunded, and therefore just publicity seeking?”

      It’s probably just publicity seeking (like everything the politicians say I’m afraid), and we shouldn’t expect much, but it helps raising enthusiasm. As you say, Starshot is real.

  • Joe May 26, 2016, 13:40

    I love the idea of a miniature starship mission to Alpha Centauri by 2069. I agree that giving a project a deadline that is culturally linked to a historical date does seem to work in motivating human societies. The Breakthrough Starshot initiative is exactly the kind of bold but pragmatic thinking that is needed to get the space program out of its low earth orbit rut. When I was a teenager I used to love Star Trek, but I always found it irritating that the 300 year gap between the 1960s and the twenty third century was always kept vague. But now we at least have one real world potential date to fill in the gap: 2069. And while the idea of warp drive and FTL travel remains far fetched, it is perhaps slightly less fantastical thanks to the Breakthrough Starshot, and rare, farsighted politicians like John Culberson.

  • ljk May 26, 2016, 14:30

    Should we bring up the irony that it took a Russian billionnaire to get both the Western SETI/METI and interstellar exploration programs really going?

    Hey, whatever works. Because a few more decades of endless discussions back and forth at limited attendance science conferences is not going to do the trick. Just as it took a few far-sighted entrepreneurs to finally get us back on the roads to Luna, Mars, and the planetoids – also after decades of conferences and endless rants asking why haven’t we gone back to the Moon since 1972 or send humans to Mars like we were supposed to in the 1980s.

    • Alex Tolley May 26, 2016, 17:41

      Yes it is ironic. Like fighting Communism in Vietnam, only to finally include Vietnam in the TPP trade agreement in what is still nominally a Communist country.

      Real funding will make all the difference between talking and doing.

      Greg Benford’s short story, The Man Who Sold the Stars, in “Starship Century” is almost prophetic, in this regard.

  • ole burde May 26, 2016, 14:51

    A lot of smart people in NASA must now fear for their jobs , with Space-X and others challenging their position . This competiton could be a wonderful thing , because those smart people just might wake up in time and start to fight for their jobs by producing something of real value . Until now their best efforts have been going towards the political aspects of the giant goverment agency , but it now becomes clear that this strategy only was a short term sucses . They just might listen more carefully to people like Culberson than we would otherwise expect …

  • JoeG May 26, 2016, 20:54

    To give some perspective on the current state of government and space policy, I offer up this little gem: back in the late 90’s during the Mars pathfinder mission, a Representive name Shiela Jackson Lee asked a Nasa official if the rover would be able to see the flag that the astronauts planted there (on Mars)… Now, understand that this woman was college educated, became a lawyer, had worked in various government offices, had become a judge, and later was elected to the house of representives… The biggest irony was she served on the Science committee, and a sub-commitee on space policy… But she was as dumb as a box of hammers… Unfortunately this is more common than not… We have a conga line of idiot savants that are brilliant at getting elected, yet couldnt figure out how to screw in a light bulb.

    However, I dont really blame the politicians, I blame the people who elect these fools. (Has anyone seen the movie, Idiocracy?)

    The only way I see funding any kind of space program would be to create some fake emergency… The “United Nations Space Cadet Corps to Stop Killer Asteroids and Global Warming in Space” … Or some such thing…

    More likely I see some mega-invester like Elon Musk mining asteroids for rare earth elements (I have no idea what the economics are for something like that but I’d bet it would be done with robots anyway).

    If you are waiting on the masses to support a really expensive science program that doesnt give them free stuff, dont hold your breath… They’re all eatting cheetos and tweeting pictures of Kim Kardashian’s back side to each other. And why bother doing the real thing when you can watch a movie or play a video game and pretend you were there?

    Sorry… Just being realistic…

    • Joe May 27, 2016, 10:32

      Joe G’s comment reminds me of the SF story “The Marching Morons.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Marching_Morons. Even though moron is no longer an acceptable term, this story is a great reminder that other priorities can slow or halt scientific progress.

  • Pointless Geometry May 26, 2016, 21:04

    This is great news that a politician is pushing for interstellar research. I hope it gets up. Also remember that films like Interstellar helped raise awareness in the general public, regardless of whether one loved the film or loathed it ( I loathed it). It all augurs well.

  • Charlie May 26, 2016, 21:33

    I can’t think of how much I couldn’t disagree more with @Richard Burke-Ward. Not with the fact that he has idealism and that he wishes to have stuff happen. That’s all good and fine, but what I disagree with is the fact that there is so much lack of realization as to priorities in how things work in the world. I’m getting to be an old fogey so that colors what I say and how I present myself.

    But all that being said, you have to realize that this country, as well as the entire world. It appears to be in a bit of a rut, so to speak, a type of negative functionality, if you will. What am I talking about? Well, simply amounts to this that there is so much money that has been diverted to all types of other programs that this idea of interstellar travel is probably almost nonexistent to most nations and thinking people in the world.

    We have an enormous, enormous debt that require some type of dealings with to make it tractable. We have infrastructure, which is in decay and we have just absolutely beyond any normal need of investment in health sciences to help combat the four killers of the general developed world: obesity, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. There is so much nonidealism work that needs to be accomplished that you could go on and on. So to end this conversation, I just wish to say that interstellar travel will probably be on the back burner for many, many decades to come.

  • ole burde May 28, 2016, 5:19

    I dont think you have to be naive to believe things could improve dramaticly . There’s enough money in NASA’s present budget to accelerate problem solving , if only it could be FOCUSED better .
    Its a lot cheaper to solve one big problem at a time , than it is to spread out your efforts over an impossibly wide area of research .
    This would mean to give up , at last temporarily , many programs of undisputed value , but without hard choices there wil be no big gains .
    An important subject for debate is therefore how to focus the efforts of NASA and other space agencies in a better way , and this should include , or maybe even start with an effort to identify the areas which can safely be amputated .
    This what private companies does all the time : if some product lines have not produced any relevant profits for several years , it will be closed in order to strengthen the core area of expertise and profit .
    In this way billions could be freed up for tackling a few major problems , such as beamed propulsion ,nuclear electric propulsion exoplanet telescopes and closed circle lifesupport systems .
    Perhabs some people in NASA might reach a similar conclusion in order to save their own jobs ….

  • Joe May 29, 2016, 13:33

    Will a robot ever be capable of catching, plucking, killing, and processing a chicken?

    • Alex Tolley May 29, 2016, 20:55

      Of course. It is done all the time in chicken processing plants. Don’t make the mistake in thinking that a robot has to replicate a human farmer from before the industrial age.

      How might it be done with a standalone machine?
      1. Locate chicken (image recognition) and shoot it with a projectile to kill it.
      2. Hold the legs and dip in boiling water to remove the feathers.
      3. Cut off the head.
      4. Insert disembowling tool and remove guts.
      5. Cook it [optional]

      The robot needed even be that smart, and probably doesn’t need much more technology than we already have.

  • Eniac June 4, 2016, 19:31

    Likely by the time we can think about O’Neill colonies, we’ll also have figured out continuously growing chicken breast from a tube. No skin, no feathers, no heads. Powered by synthetic glucose, at much higher energy efficiency than plant based feed could ever provide. Orders of magnitude higher. Maybe we’d grow Kobe beef instead chicken, because of the better taste.

    I’m getting hungry…