Starship Century Symposium: Day 1 Begins

“Is this the century we begin to build starships? Can we? Should we?” James Benford opened the Starship Century Symposium by repeating the key questions. And he warned, “Do not expect simple answers. Do not expect complete ones.”

The two-day event, held on the UC San Diego campus, was collaboratively organized by the new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination with Gregory and James Benford. When Sheldon Brown, Director of the Clarke Center, tallied off the first day’s speakers — Paul Schwartz, Freeman Dyson, Robert Zubrin, Neal Stephenson, Patti Grace Smith, Chris Lewicki, Geoffrey Landis, Allen Steele, a living highlight reel of people who have influenced space exploration over the past several decades – the audience knew they could expect brilliantly creative answers.

Continuing his introduction, James Benford illustrated a point about the dimensions of our galaxy by cradling in the palm of his hand a clear plastic cube of the size used to hold a baseball. He said if that cube represented the area containing the nearest star systems, to model the depth of the galaxy would require enough cubes to reach the high ceiling of the auditorium. Travel to Centauri A and Centauri B within human lifetimes – a destination that would give you two solar systems for the price of one – will require reaching speeds 10,000 times higher than achieved to date. It would take a continuous output equivalent to H-bomb energy to reach a small percentage of the speed of light. Despite these challenges some remained optimistic — he quoted Freeman Dyson who, in 1968, predicted that within 200 years, barring a catastrophe, interstellar travel will begin. Applause followed, for 89-year-old Dyson was in the audience.

Gregory Benford opened his comments by displaying a simple map of America in 1812, and repeating Thomas Jefferson’s prediction that it would take a thousand years to push the frontier to the Pacific. Yet at that time the first railroad engine already existed. He suggested the possibility that a combination of technologies nearly within our grasp like nuclear rockets, space robots and 3-D printers might effect an equally rapid leap to interstellar space.

[This post is part of a series about the Starship Century Symposium held May 21-22, 2013.]