July 1, 2015
Les Johnson is a physicist who serves as deputy manager at NASA's Advanced Concepts Office at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. He's been leading the charge for solar sails, which he perceives as a rational way to get interplanetary flight moving seriously ahead.
Les was my co-editor for the 2012 anthology Going Interstellar, which concentrated on stories using methods of travel more or less within reach of what we now know to be possible. In short, no FTL technologies.
He and his wife Carol were at Libertycon this past weekend, and I took advantage of the opportunity to ask him whether he thought that Star Trek-style flight was possible. Might we ever be able to launch starships that could move faster than light?
I could see his eyes cloud. Les would love to come up with a vehicle that could move at a serious velocity among the stars. But, based on what we know now, the physics simply doesn't allow it. He conceded, however, that it would be foolish to assume we had the final word on such matters.
It's about as hopeful an answer as one could expect.
Les is the co-author with Giovanni Vulpetti and Gregory Matloff of Solar Sails; and of Harvesting Space for a Greener Earth, with Matloff and C. Bangs. He also writes fiction, collaborating with Ben Bova to produce Rescue Mode, an account of the first human flight to Mars; and with Travis S. Taylor on Back to the Moon, in which a Chinese mission becomes stranded.
The development of solar sails constitutes just one more step forward in a wide range of technological areas. The Telomerase Revolution, by Michael Fossel, stipulates that we are close to a breakthrough that will not only halt the ageing process, but may even be able to reverse it. When does Dr. Fossel think this may happen? A good possibility, he says, we'll see it within the next ten years.
Scientific American continues to track efforts to determine the nature of dark matter. Astrophysicists are developing methods that will use telescopic analyses of extrasolar planetary atmosphere to determine whether they support life. Electronic corporations are working on technologies that may leave our wide-screen TV's in the same category as typewriters and telephone dials.
I had a localized example yesterday when I had some cataracts removed. The one part of our anatomy that we instinctively let no one near is our eyes. I wasn't looking forward to the experience, despite all the assurances I'd gotten from others. We went through a set of preps and eventually they gave me something the doctor referred to as an "I-don't-care shot." After that, I waited uncomfortably, watching nurses walking around, tapping keyboards, and smiling at me. I was getting worried because the anesthetic was apparently having no effect on me. None whatever. Please, I thought, take hold before the surgical procedures get started.
Finally, the doctor came back. "How you doing, Jack?" she asked.
"I'm okay," I said.
"Good. You're all set to go. See you later."