Jeff Foust’s inside report on The 100 Year Starship Study Symposium is posted at The Space Review. Sf writers named in the article — several of them scientists, too — are the Benford brothers, Charles Stross, Geoffrey Landis, and director and special effects creator Douglas Trumbull.
Given the difficulty we have today traveling in the solar system—or even just getting into Earth orbit—what hope is there to going to going another star? “If we cannot do that,” said physicist James Benford, who chaired the propulsion track of the symposium, “the other questions are moot.”
“If we are going to go to the stars, we are going to need to use the resources of the solar system,” said Geoffrey Landis, a scientist at NASA’s Glenn Research Center who is also a science fiction author. “The nuclear thermal rocket will probably not be the system that takes us all the way to Alpha Centauri, but it is going to be the pickup truck that can drive us around the solar system.”
Lou Friedman, Gregory Benford:
“The biggest thing the interstellar flight community has to do to advance interstellar flight is to get rid of the humans,” concluded Lou Friedman, the former executive director of The Planetary Society. Technologies such as beamed power “lightsails” and miniaturization can make interstellar spacecraft affordable, he said, but that means leaving humans behind, at least for now. “As long as continue to think of this as a human activity, sending heavy people in big spacecraft, it’s going to be a subject of science fiction.”
“The first starship doesn’t have to be manned,” said science fiction author Gregory Benford. Small beamed-power starships, like the ones Friedman advocated, could be the first spacecraft to go to another star, and in the relatively near future. “We could be launching those easily in less than a century because all the technologies needed are readily available now.”
“One of the things that’s bugged me about this whole conference is the terminology of ‘starship,’” said science fiction author Charles Stross. The “ship” part of the term “comes with an awful lot of cultural baggage attached,” he said, including the need for a crew, a destination, and the fact that a ship generally returns from that destination.
“What we were actually talking about here seems to break down into two types of vehicles, neither of which is a ship,” he said. One kind of vessel is a robotic probe, while the other is a crewed vessel, but one that’s likely a generational ship that takes many decades or centuries to reach its destination, with no plans to return. “You have to be very careful about how the language you use biases your ideas about what we’re talking about.”