Interstellar Travel: The Agony and the Ecstasy
Guest blogger Cam Potts
Interstellar travel. What is the biggest barrier?
“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 Ringworld by 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?
And as a side note, multiple New York Times bestselling author, Jim Marrs, notes in his booklet “Alien Invasion: Is Earth Prepared?”
“It has been noticed that every time a space launch is announced with some innocuous payload, such as parts for the space station or a communications satellite, the launch seems to go off without a hitch. Yet when there is a secret launch, usually only described as military in nature, these often explode or get lost.”
Download the full article “Alien Invasion: Is Earth Prepared?” by Jim Marrs.
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.
You can contact Cam on LinkedIn or at campotts.com
Other articles and resources you may be interested in:
L. Ron Hubbard Science Fiction Book List
Science Fiction’s Role in Space Flight
Space Opera Science Fiction and the Future
References: National Geographic on NASA’s EM Drive, Science Alert on Warp Drive, How Stuff Works on Antimatter, Space.com on Solar Sail Spacecraft, and Mashable.com on Faster than Light Travel.
Nice little essay. But those of us who are denizens of the internet (and it’s an attractive alternative in these pandemic times) know that this problem has already been solved, both out there (of course) and down here. While some insist the internet has become sort of giant misshapen SciFi novel, there are still a few left here who don’t suffer fools lightly. It has to do with how space is actually constructed and how to form a region (usually sphere-shaped) that disagrees with that construction enough to allow “travel” near the speed of thought.
Thanks for the comment. It is tantalizing to me.
While your thoughts on this are probably well developed, I may just be ignorant enough to occupy the “fools” subset. Still, it sounds like you may be describing a method of travel that bends space-time in such a way that the departure and destination locations are very close and connected by a generated wormhole.
In the interest of full disclosure, the bulk of my education on this came from a scene in the movie, “Interstellar.”
In the scene, two dots are drawn on a sheet of paper, one at the top and one directly below it, at the bottom. The sheet, representing space-time as the fabric of the universe, was then folded, so the two dots were facing each other. Finally, a pencil was pushed through the paper at the point of contact, producing a circle. Now, the paper is a two-dimensional representation of four-dimensional space-time (3-dimensional space + time), and the circle would represent what appears to be a sphere but is actually a wormhole, or rift in space-time, connecting the two locations. At least, that’s the physics idea as I see it.
Then again, I wonder if we may be missing something. Something in the realm of a mega-physics or what some might call ontology, the branch of metaphysics that studies the nature of existence or being as such. A coming together of the science of the physical universe and the philosophy of life existing within it.
Science lets us know enough about the physical universe to be proficient at whatever game we want to play in it. Philosophy helps us discover who we really are and how we want to play the game for the greatest good or even change to a different game.
So, how does that have anything to do with interstellar travel?
If we denizens of the physical universe are multi-part critters, say body-mind-spirit, would the diligent investigation of each part yield information that might, along with our understanding of physics, help us crack the interstellar distance barrier once and for all? Along the way, might we discover secrets of existence that allow us to overcome life’s evils, to flourish and prosper, and to pay it forward? Might discovering those secrets somehow turn out to be the key to realizing our dreams of interstellar travel? I don’t know, but I think it’s worth a look.
This idea was visited in “Contact.” It was not enough just to be able to go. We also needed to answer why we should be allowed to go. Once we know that, we may not even need starships or warp drives or wormholes.
Maybe we will just have to decide to travel at the speed of thought.
Sir, you are better-versed than you give yourself credit for. And I am, perhaps, less well-versed than I promoted myself as being. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been exposed to loads of data on the subject, only that most of that data would probably not stand up in the “court of science.” I don’t know that this is the proper forum to travel down that rabbit hole. But it’s true, you do have to be willing to explore the outer limits of consciousness or “spiritual perception” to corroborate the stories we see on the UFO sites. My point, I suppose, is that if you do that exploration, you find lots of corroboration. It’s almost a sure thing that a lot more is going on under our noses than what most of us are aware of.
When you were learning to SPELL YOUR NAME I WAS BEING TRAINED TO CONQUER GALAXYS!!!!
A book i just finished was Delta-V by Daniel Suarez.
It is set only a decade or so from now and gives a pretty realistic description of what could be coming.
Hi, great blog, Battlefield Earth was my favorite. The transportation was an amazing concept, but I felt LRH’s Mission Earth and “Will Be Was” concept was the best and I think workable.
I found your post very interesting Mr. Potts. I have read Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard 7 times and each time found it more fascinating than the time before. Teleportation was the a thrilling concept and I believe it can be done. I am not a physicist or an engineer. I am an artist. And I found this particular science fiction book to be very inspiring to me.
I loved Battlefield Earth having read it 7 times through and listened to the audio book twice. It is one of my very favorite books of all time. Of any and all genres.
I really enjoyed reading this article. Personally, I never say anything is impossible. In the beginning of a book by Arthur C Clarke, (Songs of Distant Earth), he said that most science fiction is fantasy because it’s impossible to go faster than light.
Of course the same was said about breaking the sound barrier. One article stated that it would take all the energy in the universe to go faster than light.
But then again, some scientists were saying the exact same thing about breaking the sounds barrier.
So don’t say something is impossible.
(and I really like the idea of teleportation in Battlefield Earth, which I’ve read several times).
I just read the blog here and forgot that I had read Battlefield earth some years ago. There was one problem with that book and that was that I couldn’t put it down ! I was working a full time job at that time and would read until 2 am often times and would wind up being tired the next day. Ugghh. One heck of a book I must say! I should read it again.
I liked the audio version very much. It’s a good way to “reread” the story if you have more time.
A device used in SF such as Star-Gate, Babylon-5 and The Expanse is gates. The Expanse has an interesting system where a gate allows passage from normal space to an artificially sustained bubble outside of the universe. This bubble contains a number of other gates that lead to far distant spots in normal space. (It is not clear whether this bubble connecting thousands of gates is the only bubble created.)
I just finished the 47 audible version of Battlefield Earth. It has been my pandemic friend – amazingly uplifting and hopeful during all of this, despite the battles and treachery, there is courage and friendship and leadership and competence that shines through! I loved it!!!!
That’s great, Lissa! I am glad this audiobook has been such a good friend for you! Please note, it’s a friend that you will enjoy multiple times!
Great article! I for one believe that FTL speeds are possible. I’ve been fascinated with the idea of hyperspace for decades. I view it as a shortcut through curved space. I mentioned this to a colleague of mine one time in a very lighthearted conversation. He went nuts! Something about hyperspace had seriously disturbed him. This went way beyond a dispute about the possibility of FTL speeds and hyperspace. I had to change the subject.
I found the science of travel as depicted in Battlefield Earth to be fascinating and unassailable. Perhaps Sheldon (Big Bang Theory) would find a theoretical hole, but I doubt it!
Love this so much!
This is an extremely interesting and intriguing subject, to be sure. Personally, I’d be truly excited to travel to outer space and beyond. In fact, my daughter and I were discussing this very idea the other day and she said she wouldn’t mind going with me. So, in the end, it all boils down to the same thing, doesn’t it? We will go wherever our loved ones are. And maybe that’s an adequate explanation of death for some.
Thank you. Pretty amazing that it is the Science Fiction writers who lead the future of technical developments on the planet!
Thanks for pointing out that there are many books and films that take a look at interstellar travel and space exploration. My husband and I have always known that humans can make space travel possible in the near future. With this, we are hoping to find an organization that can send our personal message to outer space in the next spacecraft to leave our galaxy.