Beyond the Generation Ship: An Interview with Icarus Interstellar Director Damien Turchi
Intergalactic flights, the future of money, and overcoming stereotypes in schools are colossal subjects to tackle, but not for Damien Turchi. The Icarus Interstellar Director and scientist and engineer at SciTec (Princeton, New Jersey), grabs these themes by the horns and lays out such elegant solutions and opinions, one could be forgiven for confusing him with a modern day philosopher.
Currently living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Turchi’s portfolio reads like that of a prodigy: from accelerated programmes in mathematics as a child and later an MSc in Mechanical Engineering from Drexel University, to a string of tiles at The American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics, topped with public speaking engagements and efforts in education.
His schedule at the moment is no less packed, and the amount of time he put into interviewing with me says a lot about the visionary’s character.
Taking time out to casually chat with me before his hour long commute to SciTec, I learn that though anyone could easily be intimidated by him, he is a person of a bright and gentle nature with an enthusiasm for life. His weekends are usually spent with his girlfriend Erin English, or with family and a couple of friends from school.
“We will do various activities such as bars, arcades, museums, and hiking,” Turchi says. “I’m hoping that Erin and I will soon be seeing an exhibit at the Franklin Institute on the Terracotta Warriors.”
Another hobby Turchi still leisurely indulges is playing piano, mainly classical music which he also enjoys on the way to and from work.
‘Ancient’ and ‘old’ seem to have their own theme in Turchi’s life – like the Terracotta Warriors exhibition he would like to see and the classical music he enjoys – and he also has a healthy respect for religions (though he leans more toward agnosticism), most notably Buddhism based on its morals.
“As for personal spirituality and beliefs I find sufficient comfort to stay well guided in physics, chemistry, and biology. Although I do not rule out the existence of a higher power, I cannot say for certain”.
As the conversation moves towards more modern day topics, Turchi relates how he nearly invested in Bitcoin, which recently climbed to an all-time high of $6300.
A hint of his strong moral character comes through once more when I ask if he believes cryptocurrency is the way of the future. “I do think cryptocurrency is the way of the future, but I think in the short term that Ripple XRP will lead the pack because it allows for rapid international bank transactions with some regulations.
“It’s a shame some of the purchases that individuals make on the black market. I am not a fan of large centralized banks due to the corruption, but I am also not a fan of the opposite.”
Not one to merely touch upon a matter lightly, my official interview with Turchi proves just as rich, peppered with great book reviews, and a through-the-looking-glass view of humanity.
CHD: When did you first become interested in space travel, and how did this lead you to Icarus Interstellar?
DT: I was always fascinated by space travel. From a young age, I remember watching documentaries and reading books on the Apollo, Gemini, Mercury, Shuttle, Vostok, and Soyuz programs. In addition, science-fiction shows generated excitement. I have my family to thank for nurturing my interests.
I did not immediately see the connection between mathematics and space travel when I was very young; however, in a case of sibling rivalry, I grew quite interested in mathematics. My older sister, Alana, was accepted into an accelerated math program in elementary school. In what could be called jealousy, I developed a passion for the field to ensure that I was also accepted into the accelerated program. After acceptance into the program, my passion became a personal one.
By the time I was in college, I started to read scientific literature on fantastical methods to achieve interstellar flight. Dr Sonny White’s proposal for an interferometer experiment to detect a miniature warping of space-time inspired me to develop an interstellar research club at Drexel University. We started with a handful of members discussing general relativity and space travel news; however, within one year of hard work we expanded to sixty members and were the first official collegiate chapter of Icarus Interstellar. A couple of years later and the 2nd biennial Starship Congress was hosted by Drexel University. I continued my involvement in Icarus Interstellar post-graduation, leading to the role I have today.
CHD: You are one of the Directors at Icarus Interstellar. What does your role entail?
DT: The Directors at Icarus Interstellar are those who enact the vision of the organization. We take responsibility for the group’s successes and failures. In particular, I am interested in expanding collegiate chapters and convincing others of the importance of the interstellar problem.
CHD: Why is this initiative important? In which ways would space travel benefit humanity?
DT: Space travel is quintessential to peaceful exploration, survival, and societal development in modern times. In particular, it is interstellar flight that will make possible the dream of expanding to other Earth-like worlds, guaranteeing the human species survives the burdens we face within our own solar system and planet.
In addition, many technologies stem from the success of space programs (see https://spinoff.nasa.gov/). There are many challenges in interstellar flight such as power, communications, reliability, propulsion, construction, and many others. As we work through each of these problems, the engineering solutions likely will serve a purpose on Earth.
CHD: You are also at SciTec, Inc. Please tell us about your projects/research here, and how you believe your work may contribute toward making space travel possible.
DT: I work on remote sensing applications, such as laser altimeters and infrared cameras. These sensors are invaluable in space travel, because they allow us to evaluate and identify other worlds and stars. Multi-spectral data can identify the chemical composition of atmospheres from vast distances, and LIDAR is able to generate topographical maps of a planet’s surface. There are many other applications of remote sensors that prove invaluable at identifying candidate planets, satellites, and other features of interest within our solar system and beyond.
CHD: You have done speaking engagements before, and one of the topics you seem most interested in is education. Do you think government or even private programs should be more creative about getting students involved in science?
DT: Honestly, I am not really sure.
I can only speak to my thoughts on the United States with this question, because I am not yet sufficiently educated in the educational programs of other countries. In the U.S.A, there appears to be a cultural indifference to science. Students from a young age are exposed to a society that associates STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields with negative connotations. Students who enjoy STEM subjects may be ridiculed as ‘nerd’, ‘loser’, or many other types of personalities which kids do not want to be associated with. Rather, knowledge of the entertainment industry is the most rewarded intelligence in the United States. Kids are ‘cool’, when they understand movie plots, video games, and popular bands.
There are several private and government programs (e.g. see http://www.stemedcoalition.org) that attempt to resolve this issue, and only time will tell if these existing programs achieve the desired results.
I intend to keep up with these programs domestically and abroad as I advance in my career to develop deeper thoughts on how we might be able to better obtain student interest in science.
CHD: Using fossil fuels clearly isn’t the most efficient way to propel a system. What alternative propulsion systems would you propose using, or are there any propulsion systems in the testing phase that you can say you’re excited about?
DT: I am excited about many potential propulsion systems. Project Icarus (http://www.icarusinterstellar....) studied many nuclear fusion approaches to propulsion, such as plasma jet magneto inertial fusion, Z-pinch drives, and inertial confinement fusion with shock ignition. Another Icarus Director, Richard Obousy, studied anti-matter catalysed nuclear pulse propulsion. He suggests to use a small amount of anti-matter fuel to substantially increase the specific impulse of the propulsion system.
A fascinating propulsion concept right now is called RF Resonant Cavity Thruster. There have been several research papers pointing to actual thrust generated by this system that apparently violates Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion. It is likely that the thrust findings are due to sensor noise; however, it is fascinating to keep up with. See
… So don’t get your hopes up, but very fun to keep up with!
I suggest reading “Frontiers of Propulsion Science” by Marc Millis and Eric Davis. They explore the field of innovative propulsion concepts and touch on the science behind innovative ideas such as thrusting against the quantum vacuum.
CHD: Apart from funding, what are the major issues facing space travel at the moment?
DT: Public opinion on space travel appears quite bimodal. One of the major challenges is to create a compelling argument for space travel that speaks to those individuals who see little to no value in its use. Changing the distribution of opinion to a clear majority of positive views is a case-by-case issue that requires psychological insight on an individual to identify the root cause of why s/he feels a particular way.
However, having said that, the most frequent rebuttal from these people is that space travel is a waste of funds when there are more immediate issues on Earth. I respond in agreement that issues on Earth must be resolved, but I disagree that space travel is a waste of funds for reasons explained earlier. Distributing time and money to all of the problems facing the human race; which the need to expand beyond our own planet is surely one, ensures that we best leverage the talents and interests of all peoples across the globe to solve the totality of the human continuity and quality of life problems.
CHD: In your opinion, what is the level of engineering that would go into the construction of an interstellar spacecraft so that its design can endure thousands of years of wear and tear? How will the maintenance of a craft traveling at high speeds and in hostile environments actually work?
DT: You seem to be referring to one interstellar travel solution known as a “generation ship,” where a very large group of people travel beyond our solar system using conventional propulsion methods. Maintenance is a huge problem with this (as well as other interstellar solutions too!). One suggestion is to bring a massive quantity of raw materials and have an artificial intelligence constantly maintain the spacecraft. However, this solution is rampant with issues, to say the least! We need innovative new ideas to solve this.
CHD: What will power the spacecraft’s electronics throughout its travels?
DT: There are many potential methods of powering the spacecraft depending on the choice of propulsion systems. A few examples include 1) using a small fraction of the nuclear gain to power electronics rather than propulsion, 2) advanced RTGs (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...) 3) efficient solar panels when in the vicinity of star systems, and others.
CHD: In which ways do you imagine human culture and traditions would change for the passengers of an interstellar flight? Do you believe these space-travelling descendants of ours would still have religion, for example?
DT: Fascinating question! For a spaceship akin to Project Persephone (http://www.icarusinterstellar....) or one as seen in movies such as Wall-E, it is essential to understand how human culture would develop on a starship. I imagine that if several generations must pass on a spaceship with all individuals awake (i.e. not a spaceship with cryogenic sleep chambers as seen in the 2016 film Passengers), then massive changes to human culture are expected. These changes are so variable and sensitive to its inputs, that in order to gather my thoughts on the results and types of changes expected I would need to implement some novel transient algorithms in psychology and sociology. Such an algorithm may take the psychological and physical profiles (using metrics defined by common inventories such as the Revised NEO Personality Inventory) of each individual expected on such a spacecraft and apply deep learning neural networks trained on the sizeable dataset of historic individual and societal interactions. Assuming a good, deep learning fit, one can reasonably expect that such a tool can be used to predict the probability of certain group behaviours expected. For example, designers of such a starship will likely want to know the probability that a culture on-board the spaceship will remain peaceful for the duration of the trip as a function of the individuals on-board at the start of the journey.
Just for fun, I imagine that a culture that evolves on a spacecraft would begin to view the journey as a Manifest Destiny (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...) of sorts where the culture as a whole will idealize the notion of finding another Earth. Earth itself may be viewed as individuals in many religions view heaven. Earth, to them, will only be a construct of the imagination, something that they read about in storybooks (or go to in their virtual reality programs and games). However, it will not be tangible to them and greatly romanticized.
Continuing with some speculation, engineering of the starship may be a greatly respected field that only the best, brightest, and most trustworthy individuals are held responsible for. Imagine, if the artificial gravity of atmospheric composition subsystems broke! Individuals will have great respect for the people that take care of the habitat. Unfortunately there may also be criminals who seek to control the spacecraft subsystems in violent attempts to seek power.
Lastly, I am not sure how religion will develop on-board; however, I hope that of the religions that come to be and the ones that are retained that there are not wars among the differing points of view. Ideally, I envision a common spirituality among the people where they respect nature over all things and treat one another peacefully… asking for too much?
Be sure to read “The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space” by Gerard O’Neill.