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Book Review:  Starship Century

Reviewed by: Bart leahy
Title: Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon
Editors: James Benford and Gregory Benford
Format: Paperback/Kindle
Pages: 340
Publisher: Lucky Bat Books
Date: April 2013
Retail Price: $24.00/$9.90
ISBN: 978-1939051295

Starship Century, a collection of articles and science fiction pieces that inspired the 100 Year Starship Symposium in 2011 and that propose interstellar travel as a very logical, albeit very long-term, step to follow the settlement of our solar system.

The book showcases articles—originally presentations in many cases—by noted technical experts such as Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson, Robert Zubrin, and Geoffrey Landis, as well as short science fiction (SF) pieces depicting long-distance space travel by Allen Steele, Neal Stephenson, Nancy Kress, David Brin, Stephen Baxter, and Joe Haldeman. Together, these articles and stories show how to achieve interstellar travel in the near and far term as well as show what life would be like once starships are built.

Accepting the hard realities

Editors Jim and Gregory Benford make clear that “pop SF such as Star Trek, Star Wars, and the like has distorted the difficulties of space.” The realities have even affected science fiction (SF) writing, which is “becoming more firmly economically based, because the history of post-1972 NASA has sobered the writers.”

Should space advocates pay attention to interstellar travel? This book argues indirectly that we should. The Benford brothers, both of whom are scientists and authors, argue, “There is a deeper reason why thinking of starships now opens fresh horizons. By working through the technical steps for propulsion, habitat, motivations, and more, we gain some perspective on how interstellar flight looks to alien minds that face the same physical problems.” In effect, interstellar exploration or settlement is the next logical step beyond human exploration, settlement, and comprehension of the Solar System.

One of the clearest points the book makes is that interstellar travel by robots or humans will only become possible with an extensive in-space economy and technological capability. Robert Zubrin even advocates for a much larger human population—on the order of 30 billion people—to make interstellar travel a reality. Regardless of the actual needs, a civilization capable of sending human beings to other star systems on a mass scale will require the type of civilization space advocates are trying to make possible in our lifetimes.

Making interstellar exploration possible

An article by futurist Peter Schwartz describes multiple interstellar travel methods, ranging from multigenerational starships to faster-than-light-speed vehicles, where a fundamental breakthrough in physics makes the rest of the universe accessible. Each of those possibilities presents its own challenges, and to some extent, will be dictated by the state of the world/solar economy.

Several authors suggest using massive (500,000-kilometer-diameter) solar- or laser-driven sail vehicles to reach the nearer stars with robotic explorers. Such vehicles will require massive in-space manufacturing capabilities, including lasers powerful enough to drive a ship over interstellar distances. Following the sailing ships, multiple authors identified fission- and fusion-powered vehicles as the next logical steps as we expand through the Solar System. Increasing distance demands increasing speeds if we want to do meaningful work safely within a human lifetime.

The next big challenge beyond propulsion or power is life support. At present, NASA is using the International Space Station as a testbed for life support systems. Those systems require regular resupply from Earth and constant care by the crew. To keep humans alive for months or years away from Earth, life support systems will need to be much more robust and maintenance-free. Starships meant to survive dozens or hundreds of years will require another order of magnitude of improvement over Solar System explorers.

Several articles in the book point out that not enough is known about Earth’s ecology or human physiology to understand completely what is needed to function at our best in deep space. This includes understanding the effects of Earth’s gravity, geomagnetism, and microbiology on health and well-being. How much of our native planet’s conditions do humans need to replicate or propagate to survive for years in an enclosed vehicle or habitat, and how will those representatives of Earth respond to prolonged exposure to the space environment?

Addressing other painful realities

While the technical articles address the potential technologies that could make interstellar travel possible, the stories take on the potential problems. One thing to consider is what sort of attitudes or political environments will be required to sustain long-term space exploration and settlement.

Greg Benford’s “The Man Who Sold the Stars,” a direct homage to Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” investigates the political fights that might occur in a spacefaring future. Stephen Baxter’s “Starcall” depicts a long-running conversation between an interstellar explorer run by a sentient computer and a human back on Earth, showing how humanity can turn against intelligent machines or expensive (if impressive) space ventures.

In the end, Starship Century comes back to Heinlein’s argument for why we should pursue space settlement in this Solar System and beyond: “The Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in.” Or, as the editors put it: “If humans wish to secure a long-term future in an uncaring and occasionally dangerous cosmos, some form of cosmic diaspora needs to be part of our long-range plan.”

© 2017 Bart Leahy

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