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Time and Distance in Houston

At left is Mae Jemison, snapped from my seat as she spoke to open yesterday morning’s sessions. I couldn’t tweet about her comments because the hotel Wi-Fi wasn’t working in the room. Several people asked me today why I was still using a ‘netbook’ to take notes and send out tweets from the Houston symposium. It’s an easy answer — I need a standard keyboard rather than a virtual one, and despite the beauty of tablets like the iPad, I don’t want to carry a separate keyboard around. Besides, my little 10-inch screen Asus serves me well, gives me all the connectivity I need, and runs Linux much faster than the original Windows that it came with (I blew Windows off the hard disk as soon as I bought it and slipped Ubuntu on effortlessly, continually updating it ever since). At $350, which is what it set me back a few years ago, the netbook is a no-brainer for places where I need to make a lot of notes, and if I leave it in a taxi or drop it, the financial loss is minuscule.

Image: Mae Jemison against a starry background yesterday morning, presenting a rousing call for an interstellar future.

Look for more tweets today just as yesterday. I keep playing around with methodologies, popping up notetaking windows and sometimes jotting things down on a paper pad, but in reality sending out tweets is one of the best ways for me to focus my attention on what a speaker is saying. There is a wide choice in tracks here, which has led to a lot of angst about missing good papers. I finally settled on ‘Time and Distance Solutions,’ but I keep wishing I could clone myself long enough to attend papers in some of the other tracks simultaneously. ‘Becoming an Interstellar Civilization’ is loaded with good presentations, as is ‘Destinations and Habitats,’ and there are other choices as well.

Claudio Maccone and I enjoyed a long, leisurely dinner (salmon and a decent New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, though not the match of Cloudy Bay), but by the end of it, my back was letting me know it was time to shut down for the day (not good, because I had planned to go to the Icarus Interstellar party). Spending the entire day in a chair, thus missing my usual 3-5 mile walk and getting no other exercise, played havoc with my various disk problems, reminding me I’m not as young as I used to be. Even so, it was a good day yesterday, despite the hotel Wi-Fi balkiness. A lunch with the various teams that made proposals to the DARPA solicitation was appreciated, as each could give an overview of his or her concepts. Great to spend some time there with Gordon Gould, whose ideas on getting the word out about interstellar studies have resonated with me since Orlando.

I’ve also been meeting more and more Centauri Dreams readers, more than in Orlando, I think. What a pleasure to be able to put a face with a name, and I have to thank all who have taken the time to come up and introduce themselves. The papers I’ve heard have been strong, in particular Richard Obousy’s superb overview of breakthrough propulsion concepts, which was delivered with panache and good humor and helped me keep some of the more futuristic ideas in perspective. Kudos as well to Sonny White (JSC), Jeffrey Lee (Crescent School, Toronto) and Pat Galea for crisp, incisive work. Pat collaborated with Greg Matloff on a multi-century probe idea using nanotechnology and beamed sails, not the fastest route but a compelling design in which the nanotech payload is essentially painted onto the sail itself. Fascinating to imagine.

Image: Pat Galea speaking in the ‘Time and Distance Solutions’ track.

Jeremy Straub (University of North Dakota) did a fine job describing the kinds of autonomous systems that any interstellar probe will need, whether crewed by humans or not. I was put in mind of the old Daedalus idea of ‘wardens,’ robotic maintenance and repair systems that keep the craft in operation. Straub noted how useful it would be to mount a near-term mission to test the viability of autonomous systems at ever increasing time lengths. The Voyagers are classy craft, but an interstellar mission might go on not for 35 years but for centuries, and robotic systems have to have the flexibility and ability to learn that will allow them to deal with ever changing situations. Focusing on autonomy and heuristics, this is one precursor mission that could have near-term consequences at advancing the state of the art.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Eric W.Davis September 16, 2012, 20:41

    Yes, the lineup turned out to be surprisingly remarkable. A mixed bag of well known, seasoned practitioners and new people from industry, high schools and universities who have never contributed to interstellar flight conference venues before now. Their papers were excellent and timely, so we have new talent to bring into TZF and Icarus to foster new collaborations and create new starship design data. I was able to organize all the T-D Solutions papers into grouped common topics. This made for a good flow from one topic to another in a logical sequence.

  • ljk September 17, 2012, 9:46


    Dreams of NewSpace: Interstellar Flight in 100 Years

    Daniel Honan on September 12, 2012, 12:00 AM

    Earth and Beyond

    50 years ago today, President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous speech at Rice University challenging America to send a man to the moon within a decade. If Kennedy were alive today, he would probably be amazed at the audacity of a new project that is light years more ambitious: DARPA’s 100-Year Starship Initiative, which aims to make human space travel beyond our solar system possible within 100 years.

    To get this project off its feet, the non-governmental organization 100 Year Starship is hosting a public symposium in Houston this week, from Sept. 13 through Sept. 16. Bill Clinton has signed on as the event’s honorary chair.

    What’s the Big Idea?

    “The moon is the first milestone on the road to the stars.”

    – Arthur C. Clarke

    If you think that interstellar flight is the stuff of science fiction, you have good reason to. After all, the distances needed to be covered are difficult to even comprehend. The closest star outside of our solar system, Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 light years away. That means it would take over four years to get there traveling at the speed of light, or approximately 186,000 miles per second. We can’t go that fast. The journey would take what is currently our fastest spacecraft, Voyager, about 80,000 years.

    That’s obviously not a realistic time scale for a manned interstellar flight. So what should we aim for? A 100-year journey — representing something closer to a human lifetime, rather than many generations — is obviously a more reasonable goal for such a mission. Others who argue against manned missions say the decision should be governed by the growth rate of technology, and not be bound by the human lifespan at all (machines could always build custom humans in an alien environment, anyway). And so the technology-driven argument for unmanned starships goes like this: how many Voyager-type crafts do you want to send out there, lumbering along at only 35,000 mph, only to be passed by a faster craft in 50 years?

    This debate underscores the monumental nature of the challenge, which will require dramatic innovation in various sectors, from energy generation and propulsion systems to AI and robotics to life-support systems and an advanced understanding of human health and development.

    To this end, DARPA has provided seed funding for “a viable and sustainable non-governmental organization for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel possible.”

    What’s the Significance?

    Like Apollo, there could be numerous earthly benefits from breakthroughs in the fields mentioned above. And it is certainly heartening to space exploration advocates that a politician as prominent as Bill Clinton is publicly touting those benefits. “This important effort helps advance the knowledge and technologies required to explore space,” Clinton said in a statement, “all while generating the necessary tools that enhance our quality of life on earth.”

    Beyond those worldly rewards, interstellar travel is essential if we hope to contact or even cohabitate with other intelligent life. There are currently over 800 planets identified as Earth-like candidates outside our solar system. What good is the SETI mission if all we can do is offer a distant wave to another civilization?

    If we are to actually become an “interstellar civilization,” we will need to make advances in many other fields as well, such as philosophy and ethics (we’re talking about a one-way trip, after all). The Houston symposium plans to tackle these big issues in a multidisciplinary framework. They will also need to answer the question of how to plan an unprecedented 100-year project and set the right research priorities? More short-term goals include securing investors and getting the word out to the public. The presence of LeVar Burton from Star Trek won’t hurt.

    In the meantime, we’re interested to get the chance to review the engineering ideas that will be showcased at 100YSS. The winning proposal to DARPA was submitted by The Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence along with interstellar hardware developer Icarus Interstellar.

    This public symposium should also be an opportunity to dust off other science fiction-sounding concepts such as the so-called “space elevator.” Dr. Michio Kaku says such a concept is within the laws of physics, and could be possible within 100 years given the enormous progress we are making with carbon nanotubes and graphene. Dr. Kaku explains:

    The problem with going to the stars is only the first few hundred miles. If you can negotiate the first few hundred miles and get off the gravitational well of the planet earth, you’re well on your way to going to the stars themselves. That’s why a space elevator could literally revolutionize space travel.

  • Eric Post September 18, 2012, 5:40

    I had hoped to introduce myself to you at the conference, Paul. I did concentrate on the Habitats and “Becoming an Interstellar Civilization” tracks. Hopefully, as I digest my paper notes, I can share some summaries.

    Eric Post
    BHAG: Lunar city of 10,000 people by 2040

  • ljk September 18, 2012, 9:28

    Eric Post said on September 18, 2012 at 5:40:

    “BHAG: Lunar city of 10,000 people by 2040.”

    Who is going to build/pay for it?