Navigators High on Spice, Warp Fields and Faster Than Light travel have all been staples of space travel for over 50 years. These mythical methods of transportation promise travel to the stars either in the blink of an eye or certainly before afternoon Tea Time. Some are based on existing science and others are based on fantastical whims of theories not yet possible.
I’m sure Dune wasn’t the first science fiction series to discuss spaceflight across half a galaxy in the blink of an eye, but it is one of the earliest most prolific examples. While most stories talked about ‘rocket engines’ blasting off for the stars, within the Guild ships, Navigators, high off their gourd on ‘Spice,’ guided massive vessels (with the aid of some sort of engine technology) to appear elsewhere in the universe. At the time in science fiction, this was a fantastical leap forward from the existing technologies.
Thanks to some fine German engineering (and engineers) taken as spoils of war from the Nazis, the United States came to acquire rocket technology in the shadow of WWII. The same principals are still used today to launch satellites atop rockets and people into space. These have been responsible for landing a man (men) on the moon, a global telecommunications network, and are the hope for landing people on mars (robots are already there having fun).
The basis for these rockets is pretty similar; use some sort of combustible propellant, either liquid oxygen (LOX) or Hydrogen gas, and ignite the crap out of it in a controlled manner, which is able to be focused and provide tons of lift thrust. This by no means is the simplest or safest way to get into space, but it is the only viable way to obtain orbit with heavy payloads.
Recently, we have seen success with Spaceship One, which is now owned by Virgin Galactic, and it’s big sister Spaceship Two. These small vessels take off like planes, then when high enough, its winged carrier lets go and it rockets itself up to low earth orbit. This saves a lot of money on fuel, as it is easier to launch something into orbit moving at a high altitude than stationary on earth. These vehicles will fly commercially in the next few years and hopefully bring (limited) ‘space flight’ to the (wealthy) masses. Although this is a far cry from taking your starship at warp speed to the neutral zone and blasting away at some Romulans, it’s a beginning to having accessible methods to get off this rock.
According to Stephen Hawking and many leading thinkers, deep space and interplanetary travel are the eventual aim of humanity if we hope to survive. We put all our eggs in one basket living on earth. Spreading out like seeds to the far reaches of the universe will help ensure our survival in one way or another. And for this we need to not only escape Earth, but we need to approach and land on other heavenly bodies.
In the 1950s, American scientists tried to figure out how they could send man into deep space with limited fuel. It was found that rocket fuel would run out and coasting at a constant speed wasn’t good enough for timely transport. Their answer was Project Orion. This was as ingenious as it was dangerous, and stupid! The idea was to use the most potent source of energy known at the time, nuclear weapons, to propel spacecraft. The idea was that they would literally drop a bomb out of the back of the space craft and have some sort of surface on the back of the ship that would be slammed by the nuclear shockwave when the weapon detonated. Can you imagine successively dropping hundreds of nuclear weapons in space as you go and exploding them for the sole purpose of propulsion? If the crew didn’t die from radiation in the first 10 minutes, space routes would be littered with radioactive waste. Although, this would theoretically allow a craft to travel at 5% the speed of light and reach the nearest star, not that there is anything there, in a paltry 85 years). Fortunately, we think “green” these days and don’t want to kill our astronauts.
There are some pretty amazing technologies coming to fruition in the next few years that will offer quick transport for people and resources within our solar system.
One extremely promising technology is that of the solar sail. Imagine a vessel that wne launched and in space unfurls large sails that, similar to a sailboat catching wind, catch solar wind and particles. The shiny surface of the sail does not absorb solar wind and particles, but rather reflect these winds back towards the sun. Albeit slow to begin, but with no air resistance, a solar sail could pick out speed and go long distances with no fuel or a depletion of consumables. These sails have already been tested and seem to work well. The next step is actually using them transport things away from the center of the solar system. This seems like a very interesting technology, but when one thinks about the return trip, and the inability to use it to move towards the center of the solar system, it loses its attractiveness.
A new sexy technology that that has high hopes for interplanetary travel is the ion engine. This futuristic sounding technology was mentioned as far back as the original Star Trek series, being hailed as ‘more advanced’ than anything the Enterprise had, even thought the idea goes back to the turn of the 20th century. Although this engine can’t go anywhere near the speed of light, it is a leap forward in propulsion technology. By utilizing only electricity and not fuel, they can be kept running for far longer, either in craft powered by nuclear or solar power. An in the end, slow but steady could win the race.
A new version of this propulsion system, VASIMR by Astra Rocket Company, hopes to allow astronauts to travel to Mars in about 39 days as opposed to six months by traditional rocket. That’s just a little over a month until we would reach another planet. This is shorter than most voyages people took to discover the new world and travel to the Far East from Europe. This engine will be tested in space sometime in 2013, and will hopefully help to assure it’s usage as a quick, reliable and safe method to reach the other planets of our solar system.
With exciting projects such as the newly formed company Planetary Resources started by James Cameron, Eric Schmidt and others, we need faster ways to reach objects in our celestial neighborhood. We also need to be able to transport people and massive amounts of resources in a timely manner in order to a resource hungry planet that is quickly running out of resources required to maintain an advancing civilization. Although we don’t yet have the ability to travel to the stars in a timely manner, we still have a lot of exploring to do in our neck of the woods and are slowly progressing to the point where we can not only see, but also touch our nearest neighbors.