National Geographic : 2013 Jan
Space exploration 75 bomb-powered spacecraft might travel to a star. These days it’s easier to outline why we’ll never go. Stars are too far away; we don’t have the money. The reasons why we might go anyway are less ob- vious—but they’re getting stronger. Astronomers have detected planets around many nearby stars; soon they’re bound to find one that’s Earthlike and in the sweet spot for life, and in that instant they’ll create a compelling destination. Our tech- nology too is far more capable than it was in the 1960s; atom bombs aren’t cutting-edge anymore. In his office that morning, Les Johnson handed me what looked like a woven swatch of cobwebs. It was actually a carbon-fiber fabric sample for a giant spaceship sail—one that might carry a probe beyond Pluto on rays of sunlight or laser beams. “Be very careful with it,” Johnson said. “ This is a material that might help us get there.” To get to the stars, we’ll need many new materials and engines but also a few of the old intangibles. They haven’t vanished. In fact, they almost seem to be bursting forth again in the imaginative space vacated by the space shuttle, which in 2011 joined the Saturn V as a museum exhibit. In the conversation of certain dreamer- nerds, especially outside NASA, you can now hear echoes of the old aspiration and adventur- ousness—of the old craziness for space. Last spring, three weeks before I met with Johnson, SpaceX, a private company based near Los Angeles, used one of its own rockets to launch an unmanned capsule that docked with the International Space Station. SpaceX leads several other companies in the race to replace the shuttle as the space station’s supply ship. A month before that, a company called Plan- etary Resources, backed by billionaire investors such as Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, One way to power a starship, says NASA’s Les Johnson, might be with a sail filled by the faint pressure of sunlight or laser light. The sail would be hair thin and shiny to reflect the light. It would also be the size of a small country. Tim Folger wrote about tsunamis last February. Artist Stephan Martiniere’s science fiction movie credits run from Star Wars to Total Recall. michael a. schwarz On our digital editions you can listen to stephan martiniere talk about his starship paintings.