Is it worthwhile to launch a probe on the decades-long journey to another star if it cannot stop at its destination, and can only make closeup observations for the few hours of a flyby encounter?
When in 1978 the British Interplanetary Society published its report on Project Daedalus – the most detailed design study of an interstellar spacecraft yet to appear – the conclusion was that only a flyby would be possible. Because of the enormous energy needed to accelerate Daedalus to 12% of the speed of light in order to make the crossing to the relatively close Barnard’s star within a human working lifetime, there would be no propulsive power to spare for slowing down on arrival.
Now the time has come to question the 30-year-old assumptions behind Daedalus and produce a better design.
This is the purpose of project Icarus, which was launched at a packed one-day symposium at the BIS headquarters in London on 30 September 2009 under the title: “Project Daedalus – Three Decades On”.
A full report on the meeting is due to appear in the December 2009 issue of Spaceflight, p.454-455.
The Icarus project website has been set up for online debate and updates of progress. Do get in touch with project leader Kelvin Long if you have a contribution to make.
There is much talk today about saving the planet. Actually, the planet is not in danger. What’s at risk is advanced human civilization and, because of that, the biosphere as it has existed for the last few thousand years. The root cause of that risk is an exploding human population, which may hit nine billion individuals by 2050. Likely, the relatively clean, abundant ecology of the eighteenth century is simply incompatible with that many people on Earth. In that case, environmentalists and other shapers of policy are making a fundamental error when they assume Earth is a closed system. That error seems grounded in the pre-Copernican notion that Earth is the center of the universe.
Earth, in fact, is one component of a vast, open system. The overwhelming predominance of every material resource we need – with the exception of petroleum products – that humans can access now or later in this century is not on Earth, but beyond Earth. To give those nine billion humans decent material lives, we must use resources we can reach. Logic drives us out. Accessing those resources argues for policy that:
If seventh-century Islamic law, narrowly interpreted, is inadequate to govern the modern world, so is a medieval view of Earth, and so is a romantic notion of pre-industrial nature. A highly advanced technological civilization will make unprecedented choices because it will be in unprecedented situations. One of those choices will almost certainly be to expand into space.
Excellent news from the Augustine Review of US manned space policy. Although it did not make recommendations as such, the committee has clearly come out in favour of greater commercial access to orbit, and against the astonishing and ludicrous idea that, after a quarter century’s work and an investment of public funds approaching $100 bn, the International Space Station will be casually discarded, deorbited and destroyed in 2016.
More comment from Doris Hamill on The Space Review last month spells out a coherent strategy for American manned spaceflight. Hamill, a manager at NASA Langley, writes that NASA’s mission has three elements: to explore space, to expand human activity in space, and to exploit the potential of space for human benefit and national wealth – i.e. its commercial potential:
As with any frontier, we are opening space in layers, with scientific exploration on the outer frontier, the technology for human activity in the middle frontier, and engineering and operations transforming the near frontier into a realm of ordinary activity for exploitation. [...] The remaining challenge on the near frontier is to convert NASA’s investment in human space flight into economic activity. At that point, Earth orbital space will be assimilated into the full range of human activity and cease to be a frontier.
She makes the forgotten connection between NASA and its progenitor, NACA, which helped to open the aeronautical frontier using the same three-fold approach:
They explored the science of aeronautics and the atmosphere; developed technology to expand human presence in the air into new realms of speed, capacity, efficiency, and safety; and established engineering and operational principles that allowed companies to exploit the economic potential of aviation.
The message is surely clear: space agencies such as NASA must get low Earth orbit into the hands of commercial companies such as SpaceX, Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic. Only when their services are beginning to mature will it be time to return to the Moon – and the first part of that journey must be made, not on the absurd firework stick that blasted off from Florida a few days ago and immediately fell into the ocean, but on scheduled flights of regular commercial Earth to orbit services!
Yes, it will delay the return to the Moon for another ten or twenty years – but it will make all the difference between a return to the Moon which is cancelled as quickly as was Apollo, and a return that is permanently sustainable.
President Obama must understand that the purpose of exploration of the frontier is to colonise that frontier – “to convert NASA’s investment in human space flight into economic activity” – and therefore NASA’s first priority must be to secure the future of the ISS by giving companies the support and stimulus they need to get the costs of access way down and the rate of usage way up, based on space tourism and to a lesser extent on commercial product research.
We must complete the colonisation of low Earth orbit. Then we can start to think again about the next step: exploring the Moon and Mars.
Not to be missed: Alan Bond, Managing Director of Reaction Engines Ltd, speaking at the Royal Aeronautical Society, 4 Hamilton Place, London, Thursday 19 November 2009, commencing at 18:00 hrs. Free entry, and open to members and non-members alike. RSVP is appreciated, to <firstname.lastname@example.org>, or telephone +44 (0)20 7670 4345.
This will be the society’s Brabazon Lecture 2009, with the title: “Can the United Kingdom be the Vanguard of a New Space Age?” RAeS advance publicity writes:
We need to extend the utility of space for the human race and we want to get people onto the surface of other worlds to see what they are about. The faithful expendable rocket, which has served us so well, is simply not up to the job. New technology is needed; cheaper, more reliable and more frequent. The UK is well placed to lead this new Space Age technologically; it just needs some visionary leadership.
The Brabazon Lecture is in honour of Lord Brabazon of Tara. Born in London in 1884, J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon became one of British aviation’s true pioneers, and in his political career played an important role in the planning of civil aviation for the years following WW2.
For more information please click here.
The book I mentioned in our conversation at the AGM is The Dream of Spaceflight: Essays on the Near Edge of Infinity, by Wyn Wachhorst, foreword by Buzz Aldrin (Da Capo Press, 2000). This was an interesting find at the BIS book sale on 15 August.
The Dream of Spaceflight is one of the few books that lives up to the marketing hype on the cover. It is a beautifully written meditation on the philosophical aspects of space travel, something that is rare in this very technically dominated subject area. The book is refreshingly short, at only 225 pages in large type in the paperback version I have.
Wachhorst reflects on the real meanings behind the great events of the space age, writing in a fluid and lyrical style. He also examines the influence of space technology on 20th-century cultural development, and considers the human future in space. I recommend this book highly.
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