“Space is deep, Man is small and Time is his relentless enemy.” —L. Ron Hubbard, To the Stars
Astronomical units and light-years are depressingly small units in describing the distances. Travel at the speed of light takes years, decades, centuries, even millennia to transit the space between neighboring stars, let alone galaxies.
Just to clarify an astronomical unit is 93.0 million miles—the average distance from the center of the earth to the center of the sun; and a light-year is the distance that light travels per year, which is about 6 trillion miles. Light travels 186,000 miles per second.
At lightspeed, it would be a four year trip from the Earth to Alpha Centauri, the star system closest to ours.
Even more extreme, to reach the galactic center of our own Milky Way would require 30,000 years of lightspeed travel. Interestingly, though, there is another galaxy closer to our solar system than our galactic center. The Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy is a mere 25,000 light-years from us and 42,000 light-years from the galactic center.
It just seems impossible for humans to boldly go where no one has gone before!
Or is it? Are there secrets of physics not yet known? Secrets that would allow faster than light speeds? What about creating wormholes? Or quantum effects where we could exist in two locations at the same time or at least transit from one place to another instantaneously? What about being able to act in the physical universe light-years distant from our presumed location? Would that be travel or just projection? Would it matter?
Are there secrets not yet discovered?
If so, where and how do we find them?
Perhaps the pages of a science fiction or fantasy novel would be a good place to start—a place to “prime the pump,” so to speak.
“Science fiction does NOT come after the fact of a scientific discovery or development. It is the herald of possibility. It is the plea that someone should work on the future.” —L. Ron Hubbard, Battlefield Earth Introduction
Often, people scoff at the ideas and call them fiction. Science fiction. But others read the tale and become inspired.
The masters of science fiction have taken us to the stars through space opera books and in hard science fiction. They have explored this impossible challenge from different perspectives and inspired the real brainiacs to persist.
Here are some must-read sci-fi books that do just that—books that make you think and are catalysts in achieving space flight:
Jules Verne imagined a space voyage to our nearest neighbor in From the Earth to the Moon, written in 1865. Countless people across several generations were inspired by Verne’s story. And only one hundred and four years later, Neil Armstrong took one small step that realized the vision!
Stories about interstellar travel began appearing following World War II. Most of the early books, like L. Ron Hubbard’s To the Stars, dealt with the human impact of time dilation at near lightspeed. How spaceships arrived at such a speed was usually dismissed with references to “the drive.” Already it was clear that chemical rockets were not the answer.
By the time of Ringworldby Larry Niven (which I just finished rereading), new ideas were introduced: hyperdrive shunts for use in hyperspace, fusion motors for spacecraft of various kinds for near lightspeed travel in known space, reactionless drives for maneuvering—but no more real substance. Getting to some useful fraction of lightspeed or achieving faster than light (FTL) travel, theoretically violating physics, was an increasingly thorny problem.
A breakthrough was needed.
Hence, hyperspace. Usually defined as space with more than three dimensions and any theoretical or fictional space, dimension, location, etc. thought of as affording out of the ordinary, exceptional, or supernatural experiences or capabilities.
Now that’s a breakthrough! Suddenly, anything is possible.
The 1969 Piers Anthony novel Macroscope combines physics, metaphysics, and a very permissive use of the term “hyperspace” to create an amazing technique for interstellar travel. The book is much broader than just an exploration of FTL travel and is worth a look.
L. Ron Hubbard’s science fiction epic Battlefield Earth uses teleportation for interstellar transport and provides the ability to travel between galaxies instantly (while this sci-fi technology is being explored in other sectors of science, it is not yet on the radar for space travel). It is one of my favorite stories. You can download the first 13 chapters free or listen to the first hour. It is the best sci-fi audiobook I have heard—a real theater of the mind. This one is worth adding to your collection.
Carl Sagan’s sci-fi novel Contact took another tack permitted by physics. This one involved a hypothetical SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) contact that revealed the plans to build a machine that could travel to the stars. Somehow, the device employed an alien technique for manipulating a naturally occurring phenomenon of the cosmos—a wormhole.
There are many other books and films that take a look at interstellar travel and space exploration. Of course, the most famous, and still the one with the best propulsion system, is Star Trek. With FTL speeds measured in warps, interstellar travel is a breeze, and intergalactic travel becomes merely a voyage. Dilithium crystals anyone?
How Close Are We to Space Travel ?
I think you would agree, the idea of interstellar travel is not new, so why aren’t we already offering cheap fares to the all-inclusive resorts on Proxima Centauri b in the Alpha Centauri system?
Because it is really hard to get there due to the distance and the many unknowns along the way. Physics does not prohibit the trip, so there might be a way. We just have to develop it.
And that means work … HARD work.
Doing this involves creativity, thinking out of the box, thought experiments, visualization, and filling in the blanks with creative ideas. Then, there are the material experiments with lots of trial and error.
How cool are the real options so far? Here are the best interstellar travel methods I have been able to find.
Light sails (solar sails): These sails are large thin sheets that would be propelled using sunlight. Probably the most likely for small probes but not man-rated due to size and the near impossibility of slowing down at the destination. (man-rated: meeting requirements for human-rated spaceflight).
Fusion: Merging atoms together to create energy. Two potential methods are the most likely for a crewed voyage.
The sequential detonation of about 300,000 one-megaton hydrogen bombs over about a month. This process would provide 10% lightspeed and a voyage time of about 45 years with no deceleration.
Contained thermonuclear reactors onboard the starship. The Daedalus Project looked at this and abandoned it due to cost (at least so far).
Antimatter: Fantastic fuel density (potentially) but expensive. This would be used to fuel rockets to interstellar space. Antimatter refers to sub-atomic particles that have properties opposite normal sub-atomic particles, thus the electrical charge of those particles would be reversed.
EM Drive: A NASA project on the border of reality. This is the physics-defying contraption that produces thrust by bouncing microwaves around inside a closed, cone-shaped cavity and requires no fuel.
Alcubierra Warp Drive: Another project on the border of reality, which would achieve FTL travel by stretching space-time in a wave, whereby the space ahead would contract while the space behind it expands. The idea is that a spacecraft inside would ride this wave and accelerate to velocities beyond the speed of light. This speculative idea was proposed by theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre based on solving Einstein’s field equations in general relativity.
Of course the most exciting news on space travel is the NASA and SpaceX successful trip to the space station. While this is a small jump in comparison to intergalactic travel, it IS progress.
How would you approach interstellar travel?
Cam Potts is owner and Chief Scribbler of Cam Potts Copywriting in Palmer, Alaska. He specializes in SEO content writing for aviation companies.
A pilot for over 53 years with a BS in Aerospace Engineering, Cam is now retired from a 40-year airline and aerospace career. Copywriting allows him to pursue two of his favorite pastimes—the world of flight and storytelling.
He lives outside of Palmer with wife, Nan, and the best dog in the world, Brushy.