Artist’s impression of the Icarus starship arriving at a planetary system. Credit: Adrian Mann

It can be hard to justify the need to explore interstellar space, but on Aug. 15-18 nearly 200 interstellar scientists, engineers, astronomers, historians, economists, architects, artists, anthropologists and enthusiasts descended on Dallas, Texas, for the first Starship Congress, a meeting organized by the non-profit organization Icarus Interstellar, to explore the possibility.

Four days of inspiring talks seemed to converge on one conclusion: We, as a species, need to reach for the stars, lest we decay from being a race of explorers to a myopic civilization that never fulfills its full potential.

But wait, it was 42 years ago since the last human walked on the moon and we currently seem to be having anxiety problems about getting humans to push beyond low-Earth orbit so we we send robots to explore our solar system — isn’t any discussion on the feasibility of traveling to a nearby star a little fanciful? Shouldn’t we be focusing all our attention on wiping out poverty on Earth, finding cures for cancer and striving toward world peace? Space exploration is, after all, just a luxury.

ANALYSIS: Starship Congress: Competing Our Path to the Stars

But consider for a minute a united effort to develop the technologies to make interstellar missions feasible. The benefits in doing so, in the near term, could be transformative to our way of life. The drive to explore is one of our most basic impulses; going interstellar would be the pinnacle of what it is to be human. Therefore, space exploration is not a luxury, it’s an evolutionary imperative.

From Cathedrals to Starships

As many speakers at the Starship Congress pointed out, to develop interstellar techniques (whether they be technological, sociological or cultural in nature) we need to develop the solar system as a resource. There are strong economic reasons for doing so that could bring unimaginable wealth to our planet, in turn nearing our far-reaching desire to travel to the stars. They aren’t looking at the near-term, they’re looking beyond their lives in the hope they might be a part of something bigger.

I’d often hear the comparison between “building a starship” and examples from history. The great cathedrals for example; generation after generation would take sometimes hundreds of years working on these huge long-term projects. The completion of the cathedrals was never realized for the vast majority of people who developed the techniques and contributed to their construction. And yet they passed down skills to later generations so the cathedral would eventually be complete. The construction of the pyramids was similar in nature. Granted, these examples were driven by religion and worship, what would drive us to build a starship?

The long term goal of building a starship — whether that should take the form of an unmanned interstellar probe or a vast “worldship” that would carry generations of human beings for decades or even centuries to colonize other star systems — would be multi-generational. Spin-off technologies and changes in social outlook could invigorate our species, but the majority of the “builders” will never see its completion. In our current “instant gratification” culture such a project may seem abhorrent, but as history has taught us it’s not without precedent.

GALLERY: Sizing Up the Daedalus Interstellar Spacecraft

Economic Stagnation

To even get close to the interstellar goal some key changes need to be made. As powerfully explained by financial economist Armen Papazian, we are at a troubling financial time as the world’s economy has a stranglehold on key developments in space. For example, NASA’s achievements in the 1960′s saw humans set foot on another world, but politics and the economy have resigned grand human space projects to an undefined future, a factor that will have a real impact on our evolution into space.

“Because of our financial and monetary infrastructure on Earth in space … we have a huge evolutionary bottleneck,” Papazian said during his Institute for Interstellar Studies (I4IS) “Alpha Centauri Award”-winning presentation on Friday.

Although there is some hope in creating a new economy based on driving new wealth from commercial initiatives such as asteroid mining, for our civilization to grow in space, a new system needs to replace the economy of buying debt. For more on Public Capitalization Notes, a new system that could provide an answer to these economic issues, see Papazian’s presentation below.

Confronting Existential Risks

The risks of not exploring space are frightening in the long term. Our planet has a very definite “sell-by date” in a billion years time — the aging sun will be heating up our planet so much that it will eventually be uninhabitable. Wouldn’t it be better to ensure that we are a multi-planetary, multi-stellar race before then? Also, there are thousands of near-Earth asteroids buzzing our planet. Yes, astronomers can say with a fairly high degree of certainty that none of the known civilization-ending space rocks are going to hit us in the next 100 years. But after that, who knows? Our descendents will have to play the odds and hope that someone builds an anti-asteroid system before it’s too late.

ANALYSIS: Kickstarting Our Interstellar Future

Alpha Centauri Award runners-up library futurist Heath Rezabek and author Nick Nielsen argued that existential risk (Xrisk) — the threat of premature extinction of intelligent life on Earth — posed a challenging problem. An asteroid impact is an oft-hyped existential risk, but other more subtle risks could force us into stagnation, ultimately preventing humanity from reaching its full potential; existing, but not thriving. “Permanent stagnation” is when our civilization doesn’t reach the technological know how to branch out into the stars, whereas “flawed realization” is when we have the technological wherewithal to colonize the stars, but fail to see the opportunity. Rezabek proposes a long-duration archival system — “Vessel Archives” — that would ultimately be transported throughout the galaxy on interstellar missions, encapsulating humanity’s heritage, ensuring humanity can fulfill its potential while facing these risks.

The subject of our future and identifying how to facilitate the ultimate construction of starships is huge and varied. Throughout the Starship Congress there were technical talks on advanced propulsion methods, terraforming, colonizing Mars, SETI, space-based solar power and astrophysics, but there were just as many talks about the arts, culture, politics, what it means to be human and how we’d identify ourselves when exploring the galaxy. There were no firm answers to many of the problems we’ll face, but it seems a movement has begun since DARPA’s 2011 public symposium in Florida on the topic. Since then, established interstellar groups have gained prominence and others, like the 100 Year Starship Project, have spawned new collaborations. The Starship Congress was wildly successful and represented the last few years of interstellar studies.

There’s a growing passion daring us to explore further than we’ve ever gone before. Doing nothing, it seems, is no longer an option.

Note: Discovery News’ Ian O’Neill was track chair for the Thursday morning session of “The Interstellar Now,” chair for the Thursday evening “Stakeholders Stage” and acted as one of the three judges for the first ever Alpha Centauri Award.