The Logistics of Space Travel

June 7, 2015
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A real huge amount of science fiction deals with humans banding together to beat up the (insert extraterrestrial conquerors) that have landed on our beloved rock to wreak havoc. I’d say the biggest part of what makes those fictions, really, is not the science, but the idea that humans love their own planet. Science keeps surprising us (often catching up with fiction in one way or another); humans, on the other hand, remain jerks or become grander jerks, especially to Earth. So I can imagine that the inspiration to get off this planet definitely plays a part in the far off hope of building starships.

In a recent piece in The Economist a while back, the science folks at the magazine discuss how nowadays there are actually five (and probably counting) different groups researching interstellar travel. The challenge set about by our own night sky has proven itself worth studying, despite the fact that space is so damn big. Science fiction toys with the notion of faster-than-light-speed travel, but science and economics makes that a real difficult possibility. For one, space is so big it’s practically mocking us, and also, it would take the resources of several terraformed planets to build suitable starships. So yeah, it’s quite the task. And the Millennium Falcon is still seemingly powered by magic.

When asked why bother, scientists chilling at conferences usually admit the best reasoning behind space travel is, “because space is there.” That seems a little ridiculous, and I’m almost always on science’s side. Starships built for interstellar flight take so much work and power that there has to be better reasons to build them than grandiose curiosity. I suppose if we colonized Mars, for instance, and mined up enough excess stuff, we could award ourselves a victory, curiosity spaceship. But curiosity at present is not worth the effort, despite how much I bet scientists in these fields want to get off the planet, even if through the eyes of one lucky robot.

There have been a number of different ideas already. Some include giant nuclear payloads (making stopping to chill out in any one galaxy near impossible) and little ships with solar sails (cooler but best for lil’ robots that couldn’t get bored). No matter the feasibility, each idea requires that massive pile of energy and money, the lot of which could be spent on other scientific breakthroughs. Cancer’s still a thing, you guys, and no one should be curious as to its future (we have to defeat it!). Again, I love imagination, especially in fields where mathematics reigns supreme, but the bottom line is that we hardly have a stake in our own galaxy, so why blast an expensive toy that far away.

But I’m not a cynic. I really do think one day we’ll all be rocketing around in sweet ass interstellar vehicles, and it’s a shame that I’ll kick the bucket way before that time comes. My grandkids might get a glimpse of a real life Enterprise, but me and my generation are definitely dreaming if we wish to board anything with Spock and Kirk anytime soon. Not that there’s anything wrong with dreaming about the stars; it really, really works in science fiction, and narrative is where inspiration will continue to come from (scientists: keep being fiction nerds, for my grandkids!).

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