How long before we can send humans to another star system? Ask people active in the interstellar community and you’ll get answers ranging from ‘at least a century’ to ‘never.’ I’m inclined toward a view nudging into the ‘never’ camp but not quite getting there. In other words, I think the advantages of highly intelligent instrumented payloads will always be apparent for missions of this duration, but I know human nature well enough to believe that somehow, sometime, a few hardy adventurers will find a way to make the journey. I do doubt that it will ever become commonplace.

You may well disagree, and I hope you’re right, as the scenarios open to humans with a galaxy stuffed with planets to experience are stunning. Having come into the field steeped in the papers and books of Robert Forward, I’ve always been partial to sail technologies and love the brazen, crazy extrapolation of Forward’s “Flight of the Dragonfly,” which appeared in Analog in 1982 and which would later be turned into the novel Rocheworld (Baen, 1990). This is the novel where Forward not only finds a bizarre way to keep a human crew sane through a multi-decade journey but also posits a segmented lightsail to get the crew home.

Image: The extraordinary Robert Forward, whose first edition of Flight of the Dragonfly was expanded a bit from the magazine serial and offered in book form in 1984. The book would later be revised and expanded further into the 1990 Baen title Rocheworld. The publishing history of this volume is almost as complex as the methods Forward used to get his crew back from Barnard’s Star!

Forward was a treasure. Like Freeman Dyson, his imagination was boundless. Whether we would ever choose to build the vast Fresnel lens he posited in the outer Solar System as a way of collimating a laser beam from near-Sol orbit, and whether we could ever use that beam to reflect off detached segments of the sail upon arrival to slow it down are matters that challenge all boundaries of engineering. I can hear Forward chuckling. Here’s the basic idea, as drawn from his original paper on the concept.

Image: Forward’s separable sail concept used for deceleration, from his paper “Roundtrip Interstellar Travel Using Laser-Pushed Lightsails,” Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets 21 (1984), pp. 187-195. The ‘paralens’ in the image is a huge Fresnel lens made of concentric rings of lightweight, transparent material, with free space between the rings and spars to hold the vast structure together, all of this located between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus. Study the diagram and you’ll see that the sail has three ring segments, each of them separating to provide a separate source of braking or acceleration for the arrival, respectively, and departure of the crew. Imagine the laser targeting this would require. Credit: Robert Forward.

I tend to think that Les Johnson is right about sails as they fit into the interstellar picture. In a recent interview with a publication called The National, Johnson (NASA MSFC) made the case that we might well reach another star with a sail driven by a laser. Breakthrough Starshot, indeed, continues to study exactly that concept, using a robotic payload miniaturized for the journey and sent in swarms of relatively small sails driven by an Earth-based laser. But when it comes to human missions to even nearby stars, Johnson is more circumspect. Let me quote him on this from the article:

“As for humans, that’s a lot more complicated because it takes a lot of mass to keep a group of humans alive for a decade-to centuries-long space journey and that means a massive ship. For a human crewed ship, we will need fusion propulsion at a minimum and antimatter as the ideal. While we know these are physically possible, the technology level needed for interstellar travel seems very far away – perhaps 100 to 200 years in the future.”

Johnson’s background in sail technologies for both near and deep space at Marshall Space Flight Center is extensive. Indeed, there was a time when his business card described him as ‘Manager of Interstellar Propulsion Technology Research’ (he once told me it was “the coolest business card ever”). He has also authored (with Gregory Matloff and Giovanni Vulpetti), books like Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interstellar Travel (Springer, 2014) and A Traveler’s Guide to the Stars (Princeton University Press, 2022), as well as editing the recent Interstellar Travel: Purpose and Motivations (Elsevier, 2023). In addition to that, his science fiction novels have explored numerous deep space scenarios.

Image: NASA’s Les Johnson, a prolific author and specialist in sail technologies. Credit: NASA.

So there’s a much more optimistic take on the human interstellar guideline than the one I gave in my first paragraph, and of course I hope it’s on target. We’re probably not going to be going to what is sometimes called an “Earth 2.0,” in Johnson’s view, because he doubts there are any such reasonably close to us. That’s something we’ll be learning a great deal more about as future space instrumentation comes online, but we can bear in mind that the explorers who tackled the Pacific in the great era of sail didn’t set out thinking they were going to find another Europe, either. The point is to explore and to learn what you can, with all the unexpected benefits that brings.

Johnson’s early interest in sails, by the way, was fired not so much by Forward’s Rocheworld as by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s novel The Mote in God’s Eye (Simon & Schuster, 1974), where an incoming laser sail from another civilization is detected. The realization that unusual astronomical observations point to a technology, and a laser-beaming one at that, is an exciting part of the book. Here the authors’ human starship crew describes the detection of a strange light emanating from a smaller star (the Mote) in front of a much larger supergiant (the Eye):

“…I checked with Commander Sinclair. He says his grandfather told him the Mote was once brighter than Murcheson’s Eye, and bright green. And the way Gavin’s describing that holo – well, sir, stars don’t radiate all one color. So -”

“All the more reason to think the holo was retouched. But it is funny, with that intruder coming straight out of the Mote…”

“Light,” Potter said firmly.

“Light sail!” Rod shouted in sudden realization…”

For more on all this, see my Our View of a Decelerating Magsail in these pages. It’s not surprising that Niven and Pournelle ran their lightsail concept past Robert Forward at a time when the idea was just gaining traction. We all have career-changing literary experiences. I can remember how a childhood reading of Poul Anderson’s The Enemy Stars (J.B. Lippincott, 1959) utterly fired my imagination toward the idea of leaving the Solar System entirely. It was a finalist for the Hugo Award that year following serialization in Astounding, though I didn’t encounter it until later.

Johnson’s work at Marshall Space Flight Center takes in the deployment of a large solar sail quadrant for the Solar Cruiser mission that was first unfurled in 2022 to demonstrate TRL 5 capability, and has just been deployed at contractor Redwire Corp.’s facility in Longmont, Colorado to demonstrate TRL 6. In NASA’s terms, that means going from “Component or breadboard validation in relevant environment” (TRL 5) to “System or subsystem model or prototype demonstration in a relevant environment (ground or space).” In other words, this is progress. At TRL 6, a system is considered “a fully functional prototype or representational model.” Says Johnson in a recent email:

“25 years ago, when I first met Dr. Forward, he inspired me to plan a development program for solar sails that would eventually lead us to the stars. With Bob’s help, I laid out a milestone driven roadmap that began with the space flight of a 10 m² solar sail, which we did in 2010 with NanoSail-D.

“Next on the plan was the development of something an order of magnitude larger. This was achieved with the development and launch of the 86 m² Near Earth Asteroid Scout solar sail in 2022 and the soon to be launched ACS-3 sail. The Solar Cruiser sail is an order of magnitude larger still at 1653 Square meters. The next step is 10,000!”

Image: NASA and industry partners used two 100-foot lightweight composite booms to unfurl the 4,300-square-foot sail quadrant for the first time Oct. 13, 2022, at Marshall Space Flight Center, making it the largest solar sail quadrant ever deployed at the time. On Jan. 30, 2024, NASA cleared a key technology milestone, demonstrating TRL6 capability at Redwire’s new facility in Longmont, Colorado, with the successful deployment of one of four identical solar sail quadrants. Credit: NASA (although I’ve edited the caption slightly to reflect the TRL level reached).

Solar sails are becoming viable choices for space missions, and the Breakthrough Starshot investigations remind us that sails driven not just by sunlight but by lasers are within the bounds of physics. A key question that will be informed by our experience with solar sails is how laser-driven techniques scale. Theoretically, they seem to scale quite well. Are the huge structures Forward once wrote about remotely feasible (perhaps via nanotech construction methods), or is Johnson right that fusion and one day antimatter may be necessary for craft large enough (and fast enough) to carry human crews?