Ever since I started Centauri Dreams in 2004, I’ve been talking about the question of infrastructure within the Solar System. My thinking has always been that while we will doubtless get off interstellar missions beginning with robotics on an ad hoc basis during this century, the prospect of a sustained effort will require a built-out infrastructure that will help us create and test out deep space systems of many kinds, from new propulsion technologies to closed loop life support experiments. One step at a time, but do this right and we may push deep into the Kuiper Belt, then the Oort Cloud and, we can hope, beyond.
That’s a long-term vision and it clashes with what we’ve seen since Apollo, a retreat from lunar exploration by humans that may eventually be reversed as we think about partnerships between commercial aerospace and government space programs. To explore these concepts, an upcoming meeting called the TVIW Symposium on The Power of Synergy is to be held in Oak Ridge, TN from October 23-25, 2018. Participants from NASA, DOE ARPA-E, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Y-12 National Security Complex, and several private companies are being tasked with the challenge of evaluating where we stand in just such an infrastructure.
TVIW stands for the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, which has held symposia for a number of years in Oak Ridge, Huntsville and Chattanooga — I’ve been pleased to attend most of these, and you can find my reports from past meetings in the archives here. The upcoming meeting is a departure, a gathering convened to explore a set of specific technologies in the context of the resources and technologies being readied in these high-tech areas.
Synergy — that unpredictable, frequently rewarding process of getting more out of a partnership than the apparent sum of its parts — is to be the theme throughout. Focusing on how the work of government laboratories can mesh with private industry, the symposium is to look at a set of seven key technologies, the thinking being that many of these are reaching the stage where they can create transformative progress in space within a decade. That’s a bracing thought, but the organizers believe that multi-agency cooperation can accelerate space exploration.
Participants in the symposium will be examining, for example, high-impulse nuclear propulsion, as studied in DARPA’s Timberwind Program. Political issues always swarm around nuclear ideas, but high-performance technologies realized through upper-stage nuclear rockets fired only once they have reached Earth orbit or beyond could allow faster transit times, enough so to make human expeditions to Mars far more practical than currently envisioned. Going nuclear has ramifications as well in space solar power and cislunar operations including manufacturing.
Have a look at the symposium website for more on the ideas to be discussed, which include high-energy lasers of the sort now being considered by Breakthrough Starshot as a way to propel small sailcraft with miniaturized payloads to the Alpha Centauri triple system. Closer to home, power beaming in space can help to build a transportation network in the inner system and incentivize exploratory missions to the outer planets. Likewise transformative are high-temperature superconductors, developed for several decades at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Magnetically inflated cable (MIC) technologies can help in the construction of large space structures. Large-scale 3D printing, another ORNL specialty, points toward manufacturing capabilities in space that would be a necessary part of a permanent human presence.
Rounding out the list of enabling technologies are self-replicating von Neumann machines, solar power satellites and lightweight large-aperture optics. Can we reach the point where small machines can build larger ones out of abundant space resources found, for example, in nearby asteroids? For that matter, can we consider asteroids themselves, suitably modified by such means, as habitats safe from dangerous radiation from cosmic rays or solar storms?
And on the astronomical front, large-aperture optics offers the prospect of space telescopes that dwarf the scale of today’s efforts, including interferometer arrays for the imaging of exoplanets and advances in our knowledge of cosmology. What the symposium organizers are arguing is that all of these technologies are developing at a pace sufficient to think realistically about fleshing out a near-Earth infrastructure that can swiftly be extended to Mars and beyond.
The speaker list is being fleshed out now, but among those scheduled so far are Michael Raftery (Boeing and Explore Mars, Inc) on the ‘NASA Lunar Gateway Concept;’ Franklin Chang-Diaz (Ad Astra Rocket Company) on ‘Living and Working in Space;’ Phil Lubin (UCSB) on ‘Directed Energy Propulsion – Interplanetary and Interstellar;’ John Mankins (Artemis Innovation Management Solutions) on ‘Space Solar Power Stations;’ Bill Peter (ORNL) on ‘Large 3D Printing;’ Robert Bagdigian (NASA MSFC) on ‘Environmental Control & Life Support;’ and Joel Sercel (Trans Astronautica Corporation) on ‘Capture & Uses of 10 Meter Asteroids.’
The venue in Oak Ridge will be the Y-12 New Hope Visitor Center. Those interested in attending can visit the TVIW Symposium on the Power of Synergy website for more information.