The Starships are Coming

On September 17, 2013 Starship Century contributor Peter Schwartz gave a seminar for The Long Now Foundation at the SF Jazz Center in San Francisco.  His talk was titled “The Starships ARE coming”.  Here is The Long Now Foundation’s founding member Stewart Brand’s take on the evening: 

We now know, Schwartz began, that nearly all of the billions of stars
in our galaxy have planets.  If we can master interstellar travel,
“there’s someplace to go.”  Our own solar system is pretty
boring—one planet is habitable, the rest are “like Antarctica
without ice” or worse.

So this last year a number of researchers and visionaries have begun
formal investigation into the practicalities of getting beyond our own
solar system.  It is an extremely hard problem, for two primary
reasons—the enormous energy required to drive far and fast, and the
vast amount of time it takes to get anywhere even at high speed.

The energy required can be thought of in three ways.  1)
Impossible—what most scientists think.  2) Slow.  3) Faster than
light (FTL).  Chemical rockets won’t do at all.  Nuclear fission
rockets may suffice for visiting local planets, but it would take at
least fusion to get to the planets of other stars.  Schwartz showed
Adam Crowl’s scheme for a Bussard Ramjet using interstellar ions for a
fusion drive.  James Benford (co-author of the book on all this,
Starship Century) makes the case for sail ships powered by lasers
based in our Solar System.

As for faster-than-light, that requires “reinventing physics.”
Physics does keep doing that (as with the recent discovery of “dark
energy).  NASA has one researcher, John Cramer, investigating the
potential of microscopic wormholes for superluminar travel.

Peter Schwartz on stage with Stewart Brand

Peter Schwartz on stage with Stewart Brand

Standard-physics travel will require extremely long voyages, much
longer than a human lifetime.  Schwartz suggested four options.  1)
Generational ships—whole mini-societies commit to voyages that only
their descendents will complete.  2) Sleep ships—like in the movie
“Avatar,” travelers go into hibernation.  3) Relativistic ships—a
near the speed of light, time compresses, so that travelers may
experience only 10 years while 100 years pass back on Earth.  4)
Download ships—“Suppose we learn how to copy human consciousness
into some machine-like device.  Such ‘iPersons’ would be able to
control an avatar that could function in environments inhospitable to
biological humans.  They would not be limited to Earthlike planets.”

Freeman Dyson has added an important idea, that interstellar space may
be full of objects—comets and planets and other things unattached to
stars.  They could be used for fuel, water, even food.  “Some of the
objects may be alive.”  Dyson notes that, thanks to island-hopping,
Polynesians explored the Pacific long before Europeans crossed the
Atlantic.  We might get to the stars by steps.

Futurist Schwartz laid out four scenarios of the potential for star
travel in the next 300 years, building on three population scenarios.
By 2300 there could be 36 billion people, if religious faith drives
large families.  Or, vast wealth might make small families and long
life so much the norm that there are only 2.3 billion people on Earth.
One harsh scenario has 9 billion people using up the Earth.

Thus his four starship scenarios… 1) “Stuck in the Mud”—we can’t
or won’t muster the ability to travel far.  2) “God’s Galaxy”—the
faithful deploy their discipline to mount interstellar missions to
carry the Word to the stars; they could handle generational ships.  3)
“Escape from a Dying Planet”—to get lots of people to new worlds and
new hope would probably require sleep ships.  4) “Trillionaires in
Space”—the future likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard
Branson will have the means and desire to push the envelope all the
way, employing relativistic and download ships or even
faster-than-light travel.

Schwartz concluded that there are apparently many paths that can get
us to the stars. In other words, “Galactic civilization is almost

–Stewart Brand,  The Long Now Foundation

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The Starships are Coming — 1 Comment

  1. I do not agree that Schwartz’s talk as summarised here leads to the conclusion that galactic civilisation is “almost inevitable”. If you consider the energy required for interstellar voyages, as has been done by both Marc Millis and myself in the pages of JBIS, an economy very much larger than today’s global economy is indicated. I have argued that a widespread Solar System civilisation is necessary, as have others. The attitude that our Solar System is “pretty boring”, and so will not support large-scale human settlement, basically cuts the technological and economic ground out from under any possible starship programme, and leaves that programme waiting for technologies to come along which are indistinguishable from magic. Whether such technologies will appear or not is currently unknown.

    I suggest that if we are to colonise exoplanetary systems, we must first learn how to colonise our own system. The result will be that when we eventually find Earth-analogue exoplanets, they will be more valuable as objects of non-invasive scientific study than as targets for colonisation (immigrating humans going to the local asteroid belts for that purpose). Since many people are averse to our spoiling other planets, this should be a major reassurance to them.

    Oxford, UK

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