Interstellar Travel Is Hard, Why Bother?

Imagine an island long, long ago, in an ocean far, far away...

Intercontinental travel will never happen. The nearest shore is thousands of miles away. This means that even if we had the ability to row five miles per day from our little island, it would take years to get there!

To rub (sea) salt into the wound, the nearest shoreline is probably not a place we'd want to visit anyway. We've heard that beasts of unimaginable horror lurk over the horizon. Even worse, what if that undiscovered country is a desert-like place, or a disease-ridden tropic? Perhaps water doesn't even flow as a liquid! Imagine trying to live in a land covered with ice. What a thought!

To put it bluntly, our little island is quarantined from the rest of the world. But it's not a quarantine where we are locked inside an impenetrable room, we're quarantined by a mind-bogglingly vast expanse of ocean. We live here with only a rowing boat for transportation - you can do some laps around the island in that rowing boat, but that's all.

Forget about it. Don't look at those distant shores and think that some day we'll be able to build an engine for that rowing boat. A little outboard motor wouldn't get you very far - you'd likely run out of gas before the island is out of sight! Heck, you'll probably starve before then anyway.

Just go home. Why are you still planning on building a big boat - that sci-fi notion of a metal-hulled "ship" no less! - when you should be worrying more about your little island? We have problems here! Our resources are dwindling, people are starving! Your dreams mean nothing in our everyday lives.

Dreaming Interstellar

Whether you live on that little imaginary island or living on a planet in an empty region of the Milky Way, the arguments are similar. To our ancestors, intercontinental travel would have seemed as insurmountable as interstellar travel does now (interplanetary travel is currently a feat we only dare send robots!). But in the case of intercontinental travel, mankind did succeed, driven by a basic need to explore.

But for mankind to become interstellar, the motivations are a lot less clear and the technologies needed are less certain. It's for these reasons that interstellar projects are often resigned to the realms of science fiction.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Adam Frank, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, went on the offensive, saying that interstellar travel is nothing more than Hollywood fantasy. Forget the fact that decades of research has already gone into interstellar concepts, according to Frank, the void is too vast for us to traverse, so give up and come to terms with being a mono-planetary race - no USS Enterprise is coming to rescue you.

Centauri Dreams' Paul Gilster wrote an excellent rebuttal of Frank's musings, it's well worth the read.

Regardless, hundreds of spaceflight professionals and enthusiasts are meeting in Houston, Texas, for the 100 Year Starship (100YSS) Public Symposium to begin laying the plans to send humans into interstellar space this week. 100YSS may sound fanciful to many, including Frank, but it could form the foundations for the future of our species, enriching life on Earth in the process. The detractors will no doubt baulk at this effort.

Evolutionary Interstellar?

Mankind is currently in a state of flux. While populations boom, resources dwindle. As a side-effect, we're seeing a shocking rise in greenhouse gases that warm our planet. There is a very clear outcome to this unchecked rise in population: war, disease, economic collapse and all those pesky global crises that come with them. It's hard to know where our weakest point is, or whether war will consume the world's nations before climate change prevents societies from functioning. The future is as uncertain as ever.

Fortunately, despite accusations to the contrary, we are an intelligent race. We can change our environment and we have technologies that can transform civilization. While we seem to be on the verge of ecological collapse, economic implosion and population explosion, we are reaching a technological age that could save us from ourselves. Granted, our technologies, wealth and freedoms are unevenly distributed around the globe - a global unity and a solution to international troubles seems a long way off.

So the question needs to be raised: is space exploration an evolutionary step for mankind? Or is it an insurmountable barrier? Perhaps terrestrial life won't venture into interplanetary space (and beyond). Perhaps it's the way we think; our perceived limitations will be our undoing. Perhaps this is our lot - we'll remain on Earth with no other colony beyond our orbital shores, destined to, eventually, whither away.

This isn't the future vision that a growing number of people share, however.

Even before our "sci-fi notions" of interstellar travel were embodied in characters like Captain Kirk and Jean Luc Picard, people have looked to the stars and envisioned an interstellar future. Unfortunately, their vision is all too often stymied by politics, financial limitations and social stigma. All too often in this modern age, visionaries are relegated to "dreamers" and scientists are viewed with disdain.

Perhaps more pressing is the question: How can we think about sending humans to another star when we have enough problems getting humans back to the moon? A fair point.

A Starship Future?

So, in an effort to confront the interstellar problem, while enhancing life on Earth and invigorating technologies for the exploration of the solar system, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) provided seed funds to a collaboration of organizations - including Icarus Interstellar and the SETI Institute, amongst others - to set up a long-term infrastructure that will support a mission to another star. The 100YSS will bypass the short-term limitations that politically-driven space agencies suffer and try to find a strategy that will be as inclusive as possible, perhaps even uniting the world around a common goal.

The members of the 100YSS, under the leadership of ex-NASA astronaut Mae Jemison and The Dorothy Jemison Foundation, are under no illusions. They have no preconceptions about our future in space. We can't assume that the warp drive will be invented, although that would be useful. Breakthroughs in propulsion technologies will be required if we hope to stand a chance at sending a community of humans to the stars and, along the way, valuable spin-off technologies may be developed.

An interstellar mission would be the most audacious act humans can accomplish, a challenge that would surpass our wildest science fiction fantasy. The 100YSS is a very real project and this week's symposium in Houston marks the beginning of a journey that, in a century, could culminate in mankind's first baby steps into interstellar space.

Whether or not 100YSS is successful, or whether in a century it will bare any resemblance to the structure it has now, is inconsequential. To think big is what pushed mankind to explore as soon as we realized there were strange new lands to explore. While the motivations always change, the goal is clear: we still have it in us, we want to see alien worlds with our own eyes and the only way that is going to happen is if we, ultimately, dare to develop the foundations for a starship that may come to fruition in a century.

That is the kind of civilization I want to be a part of.

Editor's note: Ian O'Neill will be representing Discovery News at the 100YSS Public Symposium (Sept. 13-16) by chairing a track session called "Becoming an Interstellar Civilization." A broad range of speakers will participate in this track discussing the ethical, political, religious, financial, social, cultural and philosophical elements of interstellar travel. Other keynote speakers and track talks will examine the science and technology that could support such an endeavor.

Image credit: NASA/Corbis, edit by Ian O'Neill