Sic itur ad astra (“Thus you shall go to the stars.”)
— Apollo, in Virgil’s Aeneid
Last Friday, several hundred people from a wide cross-section of the sciences and humanities converged on Orlando, Florida, to participate in the DARPA-sponsored 100-Year Starship symposium. As the name tells, this was a preliminary gathering to discuss the challenges facing a long-generation starship, from propulsion systems to adapting to extraterrestrial homes.
I was one of the invited speakers. I won’t have the leeway of long decompression, as I must immediately submerge for a grant. However, I think it’s important to say a few words about the experience and purpose of that gathering. Given the current paralysis of NASA, activities like this are sorely needed to keep even a tiny momentum forward on the technologies and mindsets that will make it possible to launch long-term crewed ships.
Open to the public, the event lasted two and a half days, the half being summations. Content-wise, half was about the usual preoccupations: propulsion systems, starship technologies, habitats. The other half covered equally important but usually neglected domains: biology, society, ethics, communicating the vision. The talks were brief – we were each given 20 minutes total – and varied from the very broad to the very specific. The presentations that I attended were overall high quality (though I personally thought “exotic science” should have been folded into the SF panels); so were the questions and discussions that followed them. The age distribution was encouraging and there were many women in the audience, of which more anon.
Some aspects of the symposium did dismay me. Structurally, the six or seven simultaneous tracks (with their inevitable time slippages) not only made it hard to go to specific talks but also pretty much ensured that the engineers would go to the propulsion talks, whereas the historians would attend those about ethics. The diversity quotient was low, to put it mildly: a sea of pale faces, almost all Anglophones. Most tracks listed heavily to the XY side. This was particularly egregious in the two SF author panels, which sported a single woman among nine men – none with a biological background but heavy on physicists and AI gurus. It was also odd to see long biosketches of the SF authors but none of the presenters in the official brochure.
Most disquieting, I sensed that there is still no firm sense of limits and limitations. This persistence of triumphalism may doom the effort: if we launch starships, whether of exploration or settlement, they won’t be conquerors; they will be worse off than the Polynesians on their catamarans, the losses will be heavy and their state at planetfall won’t resemble anything depicted in Hollywood SF. Joanna Russ showed this well in We Who Are About To… So did Chelsea Quinn Yarbro in Dead in Irons. But neither story got the fame it deserves.
On the personal side, I had the pleasure of seeing old friends and finally seeing in the flesh friends whom I had only met virtually. I was gratified to have the room overflow during my talk. My greatest shock of happiness was to have Jill Tarter, the legend of SETI, the inspiration for Ellie Arroway in Contact, not only attend my talk but also ask me a question afterwards.
I hope there is sustained follow-up to this, because the domain needs it sorely. Like building a great cathedral, it will take generations of steady yet focused effort to build a functional starship. It will also require a significant shift of our outlook if we want to have any chance of success. Both the effort and its outcome will change us irrevocably. I will leave you with three snippets of my talk (the long version will appear in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society):
“An alternative title to this talk is ‘Distant Campfires’. A Native American myth said that the stars are distant campfires, where our ancestors are waiting for us to join them in storytelling and potlatch feasts. Reaching and inhabiting other planets is often considered an extension of human exploration and occupation of Earth but the analogy is useful only as a metaphor. To live under strange skies will require courage, ingenuity and stamina – but above all, it will require a hard look at our assumptions, including what it means to be human.”
“In effect, by sending out long-term planetary expeditions, we will create aliens more surely than by leaving trash on an uninhabited planet. Our first alien encounter, beyond Earth just as it was on Earth, may be with ourselves viewed through the distorting mirror of divergent evolution.”
“If we seek our future among the stars, we must change for the journey – and for the destination. Until now, we have participated in our evolution and that of our ecosphere opportunistically, leaving outcomes to chance, whim or short-term expedience. In our venture outwards, we’ll have to overcome taboos and self-manage this evolution, as we seek to adapt to the new, alien worlds which our descendants will inhabit.
One part of us won’t change, though: if we ever succeed in making our home on earths other than our own, we will still look up and see patterns in the stars of the new night skies. But we will also know, each time we look up, that we’re looking at distant campfires around which all our relatives are gathered.”
Images: 1st, sunset, September 27, 2011, Sarasota, Florida (photo, Athena Andreadis); 2nd, Spaceborn (artist, Eleni Tsami)