March 3, 2016
Les Johnson is Deputy Manager for NASA's Advanced Concepts Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. He's written several nonfiction books as well as Rescue Mode (with Ben Bova), and Back to the Moon (with Travis Taylor). He and I coedited Going Interstellar, an anthology of short stories and essays dealing more or less with where we are now in our efforts to attain serious space flight.
Les also serves as chairman of the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, which met over the last few days at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. And for those who haven't visited Tennessee, that's actually a hotel. Among the guests were a number of physicists and former NASA employees, as well as people with various interests in the development of interstellar space flight. In addition, we welcomed Greg and James Benford, Chuck Gannon, Sarah Hoyt, Geoffrey Landis, Toni Weisskopf, and Rhonda Stevenson, executive director of the Tao Zero Foundation.
The workshop covered a wide range of subjects, concentrating on whether interstellar travel, either robotic or human, will ever be possible and, if so, how it might be achieved. The speakers, without exception, noted that, if we are able to make it happen, it will not be easy. And we can expect that it will be inordinately expensive. But one of the principles maintained by almost everyone was that if humans are going to survive into the distant future, we are going to have to expand beyond the solar system.
Topics included propulsion technologies, advanced ion propulsion systems, America's future in deep space, in-space manufacturing, solar power technologies, space mining, electric sails, matter-antimatter propulsion, laser-powered interstellar ramjets, health issues, and considerably more.
There was also an off-site panel of writers discussing interstellar travel, and science fiction as an influence on scientific development. The event was introduced by Mayor Andy Berke.
I'll confess I was in over my head in some areas. But there was no way Les's team could have delivered the kind of technological analysis they did without leaving the English majors a bit behind. In any case, I came away from it with a deep sense of the hurdles we face, and the necessity of getting past them.
The workshop has become an annual event. Anyone interested in the serious side of interstellar flight will find it compelling, to say the least. Unfortunately there will probably never be an Enterprise, but the various presenters understood that we're only at the beginning of scientific development, and nobody really knows what might be coming.