Reaching for the stars

In the 1970s, the British Interplanetary Society developed the concept of Daedalus, a spacecraft capable of reaching another star. Daedalus was an ambitious idea, using the propulsion provided by detonating/fusing nuclear pellets to accelerate the craft to 12% of the speed of light and cover the 5.9 light years to Barnard’s Star in just 50 years. Daedalus was to be the start of mankind’s journey to the stars, but the technology required was beyond the reach of the day.

In 2008, the British Interplanetary Society and the Tau Zero Foundation began project Icarus, a variation on the Daedalus concept, and this year the Starship Congress has put together a kickstarter campaign for a summit of scientific minds to consider the Icarus project in more detail.

In 2012, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA announced the 100 Year Starship, yet another separate project to develop a spaceship capable of achieving interstellar flight within the next hundred years.


Projects like Daedalus, Icarus and the 100 Year Starship raise a number of questions:

How realistic is it to undertake such an ambitious endeavour?

In 1865, as Jules Verne wrote From Earth to the Moon, the United States was coming to the end of four years of bloody civil war. Muskets and cannons, horse-drawn carts and steam boats marked the extent of technological development. The idea of sending someone to the Moon was more than ludicrous, as no one had any idea what such a journey would actually entail. Just a few decades earlier, the the Great Moon Hoax had deceived the nation into thinking man-bats and unicorns inhabited the Lunar surface. Flying to the Moon was nothing more than fantasy.

Although his writing was fictional, Verne applied his mind to the problem of a lunar journey and came up with some good, plausible ideas given the age in which he lived.

Verne understood the need for an enclosed spaceship. He suggested an aerodynamic capsule fired from a cannon with multiple charges placed along the huge muzzle so as to ensure the capsule reached escape velocity. The Nazi’s later picked up on this idea when trying to build a cannon capable of shelling London from France.

Verne understood that such rapid acceleration would be fatal to any occupants and so devised an ingenious method of cushioning his astronauts.

FromEarthVerne proposed an inner casing/capsule resting on several collapsable wooden floors with water in between (seen depicted in this sketch). As the capsule accelerated, each floor would give way, and the water would act as a baffle, cushioning the astronauts. For its time, it was an innovative idea, a stepping stone, a catalyst that would inspire others to look for solutions to the numerous problems that arose around such an undertaking.

Remarkably, just over a hundred years later in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Sea of Tranquility, transforming Verne’s science fiction into science fact.

In the same way, both project Icarus and the 100 Year Starship seek to tackle the problems associated with interstellar travel. Sure, some of the ideas may be akin to Verne’s water baffles, but they’re progressive, forward thinking.

A good friend of mine in Sydney builds custom, remote-control model airplanes. If I told him I had a plane that could barely fly 120 feet and struggled to get over 10 feet in altitude, staying aloft for a mere 12 seconds before skidding to a halt, he’d tell me to go back to the drawing board as his planes zip around the sky hundreds of feet in the air, performing astonishing acrobatics, and yet those are the stats of the Wright Brother’s first flight.

And this highlights an important point about the 100 Year Starship, baby steps are valid steps. No matter how small, progress is progress. Given mankind has been around as a species for the best part of 200,000 years, look at how far we have come in the last 100. A mere 120 feet at Kitty Hawk has grown to hundreds of thousands of airplanes traveling around various parts of the world every day, crossing continents, spaning oceans, providing transportation, fighting forest fires, you name it. The rate of progress from that cold, windy day at the beach in December of 1903 has been astonishing.

So are the efforts of the Starship Congress beneficial? Absolutely.


Why reach for the stars when we’re still struggling here on Earth?

This is an interesting question, and one I discuss at length in the novel Galactic Explorationbut perhaps the best answer is that provided by T.S. Elliot.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time…

Historically, exploration has been undertaken for a raft of reasons, from seeking economic opportunities to colonizing new lands and pursuing ideals, but from a scientific perspective, exploration is a means of learning.

Although it’s been over forty years since man walked on the Moon and our visions of a colony on Mars look remote, the past few decades have been dominated by exploration, only the exploration we’ve undertaken has required nothing more than a satellite-mounted telescope or a remote control rover. From Hubble to WMAP and the Galaxy-B Probe, we’ve been exploring the most remote corners of the universe from here on Earth. And as T.S. Elliot noted, we have learnt more about ourselves and our planet in the process.

Science answers questions. Science can be summarised in one word, why? Science is more than curiosity. Cats are curious, but they never learn. Science is founded on learning about the natural universe around us.

Why reach for the stars while there are millions suffering and starving on Earth? Because mankind’s strength comes from understanding. The more we learn and understand about this remarkable universe, the more we can influence the course of our lives and those of our fellow men and women.

Looking back at Kitty Hawk, that first powered flight seemed little more than a novelty, an endeavour that held some academic interest but little in the way of real benefits, and yet look at how far we have come, look at how flight has transformed our world. In the same way, the Starship Congress is consolidating the best thinking in numerous related fields to build a foundation for the future.

Traveling to other stars may be the realm of science fiction today, but tomorrow fiction will become fact. By undertaking this endeavour, we’re not ignoring the problems that plague our planet, we’re advancing a solution.

We reach for the stars so we need not remain in the gutter.


Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination

John Dewey


So get behind this awesome kickstarter project


7 thoughts on “Reaching for the stars

  1. The problem with space travel is, the physics is far easier than the funding. If we send a probe to a nearby star, it will cost far less–and most people won’t care. Apollo, though, showed that most won’t care anyway once the novelty wears off. I don’t really understand that. I see no higher calling for humanity than exploration, but the cost is staggering. I say, build a nuclear drive, send out a few high speed probes, and let interest follow discovery.

    Or–build an interferometric telescope powerful enough to image other planets and find Spock’s laundromat. 😉

  2. I often hear the argument that we should fix all our problems here on Earth before we commit resources to any kind of space program. To these people, I would point out that fixing all our problems on Earth is impossible. Not all our problems even have solutions, or the solutions require more resources than we can possible allocate. Life is like that.

    I would also point out that having all our eggs in one basket is a problem that needs to be addressed. Without a means of colonizing another world, all of human existence will eventually come to an end. Our planet will kill us, just as it has killed 99% of all species that have ever lived here. Our time here has been short, but we act as if we own the place.

    Waiting until we’ve resolved every civil war, every border/resource dispute, every conflict before we set foot on another world is like waiting to go snow skiing until the very last snowflake has fallen.

    Okay, bad simile, but in my defense, I still haven’t had my coffee.

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