Contemplations from New York
I’m just back from a trip to New York courtesy of the National Geographic channel and Atlas media. They are making a documentary on interstellar flight and I am appearing/consulting for the film. I had done a few documentaries before but the professional team of Atlas, led by Bill McClane, took it to a new level. In particular, they were paying great care to try and get the science correct. When I got back, I was on the phone to another guy out in California making a movie on interstellar travel. Once again, he was taking great care to get the science correct. In an age of media hype, this is a rare quality and something to be encouraged by the scientists where possible. Its great experience for members of the Icarus team to get involved in these sorts of projects but it is also an important part of how we communicate the vision of interstellar travel. In effect, the media and the scientists are working co-operatively together, a good ingredient for the future. During my stay in New York I also visited my good friend and interstellar mentor Greg Matloff. He wrote the foreword for my recent book, “Deep Space Propulsion: A Roadmap to Interstellar Flight”, published by Springer (http://www.amazon.com/Deep-Space-Propulsion-Interstellar-Astronomers/dp/1461406064). Greg is also one of the world authorities on solar sail propulsion. We discussed interstellar flight and the future of research in this most unique of fields. An important point Greg has made to me before and re-iterated this at our recent meeting was that the interstellar community was very small, and it was very important that we didn’t fracture that community by advocating specific propulsion options against others in a hard line way, at least until a clear front runner emerges. I absolutely agree with this and have adopted this as part of my own philosophy, given I am usually a nuclear pulse advocate. Icarus Interstellar has now launched many new projects and whilst the team members are working on those specific propulsion schemes, it is important they keep the spirit of this message alive. During my visit to New York I also met up with Icarus Board of Director Bill Cress and we visited the Hayden Planetarium together, a wonderful show. At one point I found myself hurtling into the edge of the galaxy in a mind spinning display of stars. I also found time to visit the American Museum of Natural History which had a ‘Beyond Planet Earth’ space exhibit. This featured a lunar space elevator for the purpose of getting materials to and from the Moon’s surface. Although the Moon is only one-sixth the gravity of Earth, it still requires a lot of fuel to get a payload into orbit. The space elevator could reduce the cost and effect significantly. As an aside I note that in the press today the US Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is promising a lunar base by 2020. Perhaps a space elevator might be more possible after all.
The American Museum of Natural History also featured a Vostok capsule. The spherical capsule was designed by Soviet engineers to be as simple as possible. Used in the 1960s to carry Yuri Gagarin into space. The capsule had just four switches and 35 indicators on the control panel inside, meaning it was almost fully automated and the cosmonaut had very little do. I feel there is a lesson for the Icarii here from our Russian colleagues when doing spacecraft design – simple is often best.
As a final comment from my trip to New York, I walked around the site of the World Trade Centres and Battery Park; a moving experience. It’s a terrible thing that happened back then in 9/11 which has scarred humanity for the decades and centuries ahead. One has to wonder what ET would think of humanity looking down on us, not quite deciding whether we were the most beautiful creatures they had ever seen or the most horrible. Our ability to overcome our own self-generated problems has wide ramifications for whether or not we have what it takes to travel to the stars. This constant battle between our good and bad side is what the English philosopher Olaf Stapledon referred to as the dark and the light. I leave you with a quote from this most eccentric of science fiction writers: “Is it credible that our world should have two futures? I have seen them. Two entirely distinct futures lie before mankind, one dark, one bright; one the defeat of all man’s hopes, the betrayal of all his ideals, the other their hard-won triumph”. Stapledon, O, “Darkness & the Light”, Methuen, 1942. Kelvin F. Long Vice President (Europe) Icarus Interstellar