Highlights of the Starship conference

Jonathan Markley provided a report on the Starship conference to Transterrestrial.

Futurist Peter Schwartz

Schwarz sees 4 possibilities for interstellar ships:

1. Generation ships
2. sleep ships
3. relativistic ships
4. download ships

Forgotten types
5. Radically life extended crew
6. Breakthrough physics

Freeman Dyson

Freeman Dyson sees bio-tech as the way of the future in space, to the point where genetic engineering allows us to create tree-lite plants that can grow their own vacuum-sealed habitats, with oxygen etc contained inside. This seemed to apply to both ground based colonization (including the idea of pre-seeding a place before humans arrive) and for settling places like the Oort Cloud, where he envisions them even growing their own mirrors to channel sufficient energy that far from the sun.

Audience member noted – Any pre-existing exoplanet life or biosphere would view this as biowarfare.

Dyson also made an important if counter-intuitive point, that the current starvation of government funds for the space program may actually be a good thing. He compared the progress of ground-based astronomy (starved) vs the cold war space race (government largess), arguing that it was actually ground based astronomy that had benefited the most in the long term. Today’s drive to be cheaper will pay a huge dividend in the future.

Robert Zubrin

Robert Zubrin had a very positive outlook on prospects for the human race, the economy, and the future in general.

Zubrin calculates that an interstellar mission would cost about $125 trillion, which sounds totally impossible, especially when you consider that that Apollo program only cost $120 billion in today’s money. For the sum of $125 trillion to represent the same fraction of the economy as Apollo did in 1968, the economy would have to grow by 1000 times but only 200 times from today’s economy. David Brin questioned the assumption that economic growth would continue at the current rate assumes that all the current trend lines can be extrapolated into the future indefinitely, without any kind of law of diminishing returns taking effect.

NBF – Dyson point that we need use the lack of funds to focus efforts to continuously redesign and rework plans to need less funding.

Chris Lewicki – President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources

Planetary Resources is well funded and has deep pocketed billionaire investors and has recruited very good people from JPL.

Chris had good answers to the expected questions “How can you ‘claim’ an asteroid, since you can’t own it?” This one he argued doesn’t require new law, and should be treated like commercial fishing companies who are licensed by their own national governments to take fish from international waters.

Best of the Rest

Adam Crowl from Australia, talked about Starship Concepts, basically summarizing the various designs that have been proposed for getting to another star system, without having to invent new physics.

Geoffrey Landis spoke about designs for nuclear powered rockets, and came at it from a design perspective.

James Benford started by saying “I come not to bury rockets but to praise them” but actually his talk was about the promising solar sail he’s working on, with a prototype to be launched into earth orbit next year for testing. With a laser beam to drive it (so it isn’t just relying on solar wind) he claimed some impressive sustained acceleration would be possible, and that it might be possible to use the interstellar medium to decelerate on a mission to another star.

John Crammer spoke about Exotic Paths to the Stars, which mostly focused on the possibility of worm holes. The model he was working with suggests that it’s either impossible, or if it is possible, you couldn’t have worm holes coming close to each other. It didn’t sound very promising!

Jon Lomberg’s talk was a surprise. I really wondered what was the point in having an artist speak, but he gave a fascinating talk that helped me visualize our galaxy in ways I’d never been able to do so before. He’s planted a garden in Hawaii in the shape of our galaxy, with 1 inch representing 83 light years. You can see where Earth belongs, and in one photo holds a three foot plastic pole that represents everything that the Kepler Mission has scanned. It gives a sense of scale and proportion like nothing I’d ever seen before, and when he used Google Earth images to zoom out, you got a sense of the size of our Galaxy in the context of the whole Universe as we know it, with the most distant quasars resting on the North American Pacific Coast.

He also spoke about the need to control costs, and to build in redundancy. They plan, for example, to send multiple small probes to study a single asteroid, each one small enough to hold with two hands. He also said that he’d be more than willing to accept a 50% failure rate on launch rockets in return for 20% of the price. We only need to fixate on preventing failures if we’re putting people on these rockets.

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