To Boldly Go

Attention all sci-fi fans (myself proudly included): This month, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or “Darpa,” held a symposium for its 100-Year Starship Study. Some of humanity’s brightest minds meet at events like these to discuss our star-crossed future and ways to bring that future to the present.

Kenneth Chang, a science reporter for the New York Times, wrote a brilliant article on the subject. Among the participants interviewed at the 100-Year Starship Study symposium was Richard Obousy, president of Icarus Interstellar, an organization devoted to designing a starship.

Current methods of propelling spacecraft are extremely slow on the cosmic scale of speed. Helios 2, a space probe launched in the 1970s, broke the record for fastest man-made object at 157,078 mph. The nearest star to our own, Proxima Centauri, is only four light-years away (note: light travels 186,282 miles per second and thus 5,878,499,562,554 miles per year…has your head blown up yet?). At Helios 2 speeds, it would take approximately 19,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri. We definitely need a different and much faster propulsion system if we are ever going to travel between the stars.

Thankfully, NASA is looking into an old idea to breath new life into space travel. Originally, NASA planned to use nuclear reactors to power future missions to Mars and beyond after the success of the moon landings. NASA tested nuclear engines in the late 1960s and The British Interplanetary Society worked on a design for a fusion-powered starship in the 1970s in a project called Daedalus. For those who don’t know, fusion is a nuclear process that powers stars like our sun…it’s reeeally powerful and efficient. The promise of nuclear propulsion and fusion is travel to the stars in a matter of decades instead of eons.

Fast-forward to 2011, where NASA’s future seems uncertain and the discovery of hundreds of extrasolar planets have changed our outlook of the universe. Icarus Interstellar is reviving Daedalus and enhancing it with four decades-worth of technological and scientific advances, according to Obousy. By 2020, NASA projects that it may be ready to use new nuclear engines, where the fuel is super-heated liquid hydrogen (the most abundant element in the universe). Only time (and funding) will tell.

As a science fiction fan, I find this incredibly fascinating. Famous author Isaac Asimov bluntly said, “Humanity has the stars in its future…” I’ve always dreamt of traversing the stars, going where no man has gone before. By the 22nd century, our species may be making trips to other stars. I realize I may not be alive when that happens, but as a humanist and eternal optimist, I know humanity will get there at some point. Science and technology will continue to advance and expand our horizons. We will trek across the galaxy some day. We will eventually be a multi-planet species.

While I’m alive, I’ll continue to follow NASA’s and other space agencies’ missions. I am confident we’ll colonize the planets and moons of our solar system within this century (after all, the groundwork is being laid for extraplanetary manned missions). Who knows, maybe some day I’ll get to travel to the moon or even Mars. There may be a time when I’ll get to explore the liquid methane oceans of Saturn’s mysterious moon, Titan. I take great pride in our civilization’s achievements and find a certain comfort and peace in knowing that humanity will flourish long after I’m gone. I can’t help it; I’m an idealist.

A design for a starship by Icarus Interstellar