Creating a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
The title of this blog reflects the motivation behind much of what the writer Arthur C. Clarke achieved throughout his life. Reflected in his vision of a positive future for a united humanity in the peaceful exploration of space. I had the good fortune to meet Arthur C. Clarke at the London Science museum during a chance encounter. It is a memory that holds particularly poignancy for me since we were standing close to the Apollo 10 re-entry module. This struck me as being warmly fitting since I was standing next to one of the great space visionaries who, arguably, helped galvanize the public support of space exploration. Despite having only a brief conversation with him, I had already been inspired by his writings, and had long since made the decision to devote my life’s work to pursuing our common goal – the exploration of space.
Clarke began writing at a young age and went on to produce many books examining technical problems relating to rockets, lunar exploration and interplanetary travel. Among these books were: ‘Exploration of The Moon’, ‘The Making of a Moon’, ‘Prelude to Space’ and ‘Interplanetary Flight’, a book which Carl Sagan acknowledged had influenced him as a young teenager. Many of Clarke’s earlier books contained wonderful drawings from the British space artist Ralph Smith. He followed in the footsteps of the Father of modern space art, the American Chesley Bonestell, who had worked with Werner von Braun to produce his own magnificent visions of space exploration, so beautifully captured in those famous 1950′s Colliers magazines articles ‘Man Will Conquer Space Soon’. Clarke played a fundamental role in the early years of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) both before and after the Second World War and arguably if it wasn’t for his efforts in sustaining its energy once the London branch had been formed it may not have continued. This resulted in many technical studies including the BIS Space Ship and his personal 1945 article ‘Extra Terrestrial Relays’ for Wireless World magazine which laid the foundations of the communications satellite. Thus achieving one of his aims to bring together a global community with a shared ideal of space exploration, rather than our many divisions.
Influenced by the writings of authors including Olaf Stapledon, who wrote numerous science fiction classics including ‘Last & First Men’ and ‘Starmaker’, Clarke also turned his attention to science fiction and left a legacy that will inspire millions for generations to come. Books such as ‘Childhoods End’, ‘The Fountains of Paradise’, ‘Rendezvous with Rama’, ‘The Songs of Distant Earth’ and ‘The City and the Stars’. For many people in the public not widely familiar with science fiction, Clarke will probably be best remembered for his book ’2001: A Space Odyssey’, the film of the same name directed by Stanley Kubrick. What a wonderful collection of literature these works represent – dealing with the obvious challenges facing our species in the exploration of space. How do we travel across the vastness of space? Are we alone in this rather large universe? In many of his books the human protagonist was often up against something bigger than themselves, something wonderful. An unknown and mysterious cylindrical vessel passing through our solar system; superior artificial intelligence; an intelligent species from another world. But, with the obstacles, was always the hope and optimism that somehow the human could survive the experience, could push through and find the answers to the riddle at hand and perhaps gain a deeper understanding of the nature of the universe itself. In the authorised biography by Neil McAleer titled ‘Odyssey’ Clarke makes it clear that he views the purpose of humanity as the processing of information. He also believed that humans were just a stepping-stone on the evolutionary path to artificial intelligence or what he called ‘homo electronica’. Whether one shares this view is a matter of opinion but many educated writers have considered the possibility of a technological singularity and if such an event did occur (some may argue it has already started) then a trend towards artificial intelligence is not an unreasonable extrapolation.
When Clarke died in 2008 he left a world wide network of admirers. Some just admired his work and see it as good entertainment. But he is also greatly admired by many for his knowledge of science and engineering which he used in many of his stories to create realistic and credible futures for the imagination to digest. This was due to Clarke having an interest in science from a young age and after the war went on to complete a degree at Kings College, London. Many of his technical papers were later published in the book ‘Ascent to Orbit’. A large number of his science fiction books focused on the technology rather than the characterisation and much of his works belongs in the genre of ‘hard science fiction’. An exception to this is ‘The Songs of Distant Earth’, which although it contains a lot of science too, it has a very human focus, including a love romance. Some consider this to be Clarke’s greatest work; this authors favourite is probably ‘The City and the Stars’.
Others take his vision more seriously than just entertainment, and resolve to dedicate their life to making his vision a reality to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such people are what this authors refers to as children of Clarke, creations of his imagination manifested in the minds of real people. Indeed, many science fiction authors such as Stephen Baxter and Gentry Lee were both inspired and mentored by Clarke in their writing, an acknowledgement by Clarke that he needed to actively encourage the continuation of his work in others. This same philosophy is right for the technical study of interstellar travel – a topic which can take years to master and become adequately familiar with various propulsion schemes or indeed how to conduct engineering calculations around them. The best way to achieve this is for new recruits in the field to be immersed in design calculations, guided by those with experience.
Thus we come to the origin of Project Icarus, an engineering design study of an interstellar probe. This exciting design study, if successful, will produce a high quality set of research reports on the Icarus vehicle configuration and mission profile. This could be a highly valuable contribution to the field of interstellar travel. The 1970s Project Daedalus initiative to design an interstellar probe was arguably sucsessful in producing a realistic design. Where Project Daedalus showed that interstellar travel was possible in theory, proof of an existence theorem, Project Icarus aims to demonstrate it is possible in practice. Not by building the vehicle but by demonstrating that the design is sufficiently credible.
But Project Icarus is about more than just designing a vehicle. It is also about keeping the vision of humans in space alive for our generation and the next; a necessary requirement if we are to move forward incrementally towards the stars. For such a vision must be continually renewed if it is to be sustained, matured and eventually achieved. Compatible with this vision are two of the non-technical purposes behind Project Icarus: Firstly, to generate a greater interest in the real-term prospects for interstellar precursor missions that are based on credible science. Second, to motivate a new generation of scientists to be interested in designing space missions that go beyond our solar system. To achieve this requires continuing inspiration and this is how Project Icarus came about.
The interstellar community is a small one and many of its active researchers are nearing, or in, retirement. At the same time the field of interstellar research is a large topic, with many different technical subjects to become familiar with and this includes multiple propulsion schemes for achieving interstellar travel. Given this situation how can we best encourage replenishment of people in the interstellar community, whilst at the same time making them capable designers, able to undertake engineering calculations to assess different proposals and contribute technically to the field? When pondering this situation it was realised that the best way to achieve this was to organise an international design study of a specific vehicle configuration. Once assembled, this team would slowly become familiar with the literature, make contact with the leaders in the field and eventually become independent and capable researchers on topics relating to interstellar flight. That generation would then go on to continue this vision for another generation and so the momentum towards interstellar travel continues, until a final vehicle engineering blue print does exist and the long held goal is achieved. Project Daedalus was chosen as the logical vehicle for re-design, as it was already an icon of inspiration within the field and so why not utilise the same vehicle for this purpose, which was in drastic need of revision anyway given the scientific advances in the fields of materials technology, nanotechnology, electronics, fusion research and astronomical observations? This was how the vision of Arthur C. Clarke was to be exercised in a practical way with a real output to be delivered not just in the form of technical reports but also in the creation of starship designers for the decades ahead. Initial discussions with the Tau Zero President Marc Millis and later with Richard Obousy and the former team member Martyn Fogg then led to the founding of Project Icarus and the organisation of the September 2009 symposium.
The Project Icarus Study Group is a truly international endeavour, with designers coming from all across the globe. This is consistent with the way that space missions today and in the future are to be conducted. This is also an acknowledgement that when the first interstellar probe is eventually launched it will be representing all humans on Earth and not just a single nation-state. Alien life in the Universe may come in many varied forms, but it is at least possible that any intelligent species that views our planet will not look at us through discrete nation state eyes, but instead judge us as a single continuous species of humans with many flaws, but with a great hope for our future that we can solve our problems on Earth and continue this trend into space and onwards to the nearby stars. Perhaps with our talent for problem solving, address wider problems that may exist for all species in the galaxy and beyond; our potential contribution to the collection of galactic intelligence is limitless. This is the self-fullfilling prophecy that Arthur C. Clarke hoped to motivate. If the Project Icarus Study Group can contribute towards this positive future for our species then we will have achieved our objective. If you support our project then you too are part of this momentum towards Clarke’s vision.
If old ‘spaceship’ (or ‘Ego’ as Clarke was also known) was still alive today then it is hoped that he would be proud of our efforts in wanting to make the world a better place now and wanting to provide for a positive human future in space in the centuries ahead. In the meantime, some of us will have to ensure we live until the year 2058 (which may require Artificial Intelligence enhancements) when the ‘Clarkives’ are finally opened, a set of documents containing Clarke’s personal notebooks, letters and perhaps further personal reflections on the future of our species. If it contained any short story sequels such as to his Odyssey series then this would be one of the longest recorded sequels in the history of literature. It would be a fitting tribute to Clarke if our species had by then fully explored our solar system and was taking its first steps towards the stars. Our childhood would indeed have come to an end and our minds set on the path to adulthood where perhaps others await our anticipated arrival. Ultimately, this is what Project Icarus is all about.