Project Icarus and The Tau Zero Foundation: To the Future!

It’s no secret that the greatest obstacle to colonizing the stars is distance. Living in a time when the Earth can be circled in 24 hours, the prospect of the “light year” is unthinkable to us; that unit means that even at the speed of light, the fastest speed allowed by the laws of physics, our “instant” wireless communications themselves would take a year to get from point A to point B. That means that at a mere one light year from Earth, the time from sending “Hello, how are you?” to receiving “Fine thanks, and you?” is two years.

The nearest star to Earth is 4.2 light-years away. That’s eight and a half years between “How are you?” and “Fine.”

It’s interesting to consider what we see as the biggest obstacle to crossing that distance. Once upon a time, it was technology; how would we feed human colonists through the dozens or hundreds of years it might take to cross interstellar space at sublight velocities? How would they breathe, or generate power? But as modern science advances at an ever-accelerating pace, we have some pretty good ideas about how to answer those questions. It could be argued that with sufficient funding, a self-sustaining colony ship could be constructed within our lifetimes.

No, the seemingly insurmountable obstacle to space colonization is no longer technical–it’s social.

Our biggest anxiety about sending astronauts to Mars is that, if something should go wrong, they’d be utterly out of reach of Earthly help. This was not an overpowering concern when we sent astronauts to the moon decades ago, even though they were in basically the same situation; they were days away from Earth, but in an era when space shuttle flights were far from routine, those in the Moon’s orbit were just as effectively separated from Earth as today’s astronauts would be on Mars–a journey that takes months or years, one way.

No rescue missions would get to our Mars explorers before they ran out of air. Those bound for Proxima Centauri would have even dinner hope of rescue–once their expedition left the range of easy radio contact, we would not even hear of its success or failure for years.

Now, let’s crank this up a notch: Kepler 22b, the possible Earth analogue, is a staggering 600 light years away.

That’s 1,200 years between “How are you?” and “Fine.” That is dozens of human generations spent aboard a starship traveling at sublight velocities.

The payoff would be amazing. A second Earth. An entire second human history. A continuation of our species, should catastrophe happen here. A second base from which mankind could colonize even more stars.

But to we as a society have the collective will to do it? Could we invest the trillions of dollars necessary to create such a journeyship, for a payoff we would not see for centuries? Could we send dozens, hundreds, or thousands of personnel into unknown territory beyond reach of our help? Them, and their great-grandchildren?

Paul Gilster writes  for the Tau Zero Foundation, a society dedicated to answering just these questions. He–like many scientists and science fiction authors–believes that travel to the stars, as soon as possible, is the best way for humanity to ensure our continued survival. And through the Tau Zero Foundation, he aims to nurture not just the physical underpinnings–the funding and the technological advances for such a mission–but also the psychological foundation needed for humanity to again undertake risky, long-term endeavors.

Endeavors which would not have been alien to our forefathers, who spent months crossing the Atlantic Ocean in wooden boats, without even the benefit of electricity; endeavors which have now become alien to us, shaped by the comfort, safety, and instant gratification of the information age.

Will our modern safety standards and needs for short-term payoff be our downfall? Weigh in in the comments.

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5 Responses to Project Icarus and The Tau Zero Foundation: To the Future!

  1. Dave Smith says:

    First step: we must right our human ship and cherish our individual freedoms again. Get absurd government regulations and anti-growth-of-any-kind environmentalists out of the way.

    • kagmi says:

      Actually Dave, I’d argue the exact opposite on both counts. I’m not sure precisely what regulations you’re referring to, but history has shown us (recent history especially) that unregulated profit interests tend to create instability. Rapid growth is followed by a crash–which is the exact opposite of what we need if we’re planning for a multi-trillion-dollar investment that’s going to take centuries to come to fruition.

      Likewise, environmentalists for the most part are in fact the people advocating that we take care of the planet we already have. Granted a fraction of environmentalists have anti-human sensibilities that oppose space colonization–but environmentalists as a whole are the ones working to raise awareness of the fact that our planet’s resources are finite and we will render it uninhabitable to ourselves if we continue at the current rate.

      I also must say that that thus far in history, it would seem that governments are the best-equipped to fund a mission of this kind. Private agencies tend to have near-future profit motives which simply will not support a multi-century mission. I would be extremely surprised if we were ever able to find private investors willing to set up the infrastructure to see such a project through to the end.

      Would be curious to hear your thoughts on these matters. One thing I never cease to be thankful for is government spending–it’s what has allowed basically 95% of the scientific progress of the 20th century. Working in clinical research, I’ve been seeing a lot of this lately–scientists competing for sparse government grants, private industry funding a few studies but…only if they think they’ll make money off of them in the near future.

  2. vinayved says:

    Dear Clare,

    I always admire your thinking pattern. Bravo……

    Not everything can be done by everyone. One who wishes to explore New Earths and are busy in inventing every understanding and methods to reach there, cannot be asked to first make amendments in Governance in existing Earth. We should not expect an engineer to cure and heal a patient or a lawyer to build a flyover. Those who wish to work on downfall, are just playing their part very well. They will play the same part again if they are transported to New Earth too. They are indeed matter of concern but should be handled by other section of people who are more inventive and firm in erasing boundaries and borders of minds and nations. Indeed its most essential to work on that on urgent basis for those who are working their best brains in reaching the solution will not get right funds and freedom in the absence of peace and proper governance back at home.

    We need to understand this by touching few corners of the said topic.

    1. Speed. To travel with a mileage of light-years is yet a huge challenge, where as we will be required to invent a method to travel with the speed of mind or else no one will ever reach on-time, anywhere, nor will ever have a back-up guards to protect if anything goes wrong. It will require extreme Time-Travel Machines or Toughest Yoga to do so.

    2. What do we wish to take there on New Earth? Many invaders came to countries like India, and brought nothing of value with themselves but to breed a new generation with the sense of invasion as such and caused eternal insecurity to all world till date, even when they were forced to go back or to stay back as Dominion nation. Do we wish to do the same when we reach there?

    3. If we can postpone our efforts and divert the amount of money needed to invent and travel such distance and destinations to the cause of humanity…….then perhaps Citizens of New Earth might discover us and share their path too as well. If we cannot save out own planet, we will bring same disaster to new one too and what a waste it will be ?

    Vinay Ved

  3. Page 28 says:

    I like the idea, and I do think it’s something that’s coming up as an impending big issue for humanity. After all, we will eventually lose our start. We will likely eventually lose even our cozy home in our galaxy if Andromeda gives us the boots. And all this is of course assuming that all of our crossed fingers against asteroids actually kept them at bay for any thousand (or hundred) of years before then. The plain fact is, in the future, we really freaking need to figure out how to move, and how to do it well. The sooner the better.

    That said, it’s definitely not happening any time soon. We live in a culture right now that’s perfectly ok with enjoying its short term life and then peace-ing out to the great beyond with no name, meaning, or blessings for its (long-term) posterity other than what is obliged. We just don’t care. And for such a massive undertaking I think we probably need to deal with our heavy tendency to verbally and physically destroy and exploit our human brothers and sisters to the scale we do. We’ve got issues as a species right now. And 600 (or 100 for that matter) years in a space ship is likely to see those probably come out.

    And of personal opinion, I honestly think we should abandon ideas of far flung space travel for the time being. Not to abandon space mind you. But unless we are somehow able to work out a way for transportation that is faster than light, we’re pretty screwed. After all, Kepler is a close one, an uncertain one. We need the flexibility to really explore, and the sad (or beautiful) fact of space is that FTL is the only way to do it. If FTL is not possible for us, well, we very well might be screwed anyways. Perhaps a self-sustained colony ship in space or elsewhere (planet/moon/etc). might work, but if so, we’d have to treat it as a permanent home, as in thousands of years permanent home (given no FTL). That’s a high gamble, but perhaps it’s one we may someday have to face.

  4. 1,200yrs to say “Fine thanks….”?!! lol Oh dear 😀

    It’s an exciting and thrilling prospect but we’d certainly have to get past this crazy health and safety gone mad culture that’s afflicting us at the moment. The crazy compensation culture requiring compensation for the slightest excuse of a claim would need to be conquered too. Can you imagine the claim levels if all those people ran into trouble or worse? Albeit X number of years into the future of the beginning of their journey? It would be a legal nightmare.

    In the long term, possibly even the short term if we don’t branch out and find a 2nd home somewhere in the cosmos we might very well have exhausted our sustanance options and sent ourselves crashing into extinction along with our home-world long before we get our collective act together and get out there to find a 2nd home.On the other hand we need to take enough time to learn some better sense of responsibility or we will continue to ignore the issues that are trashing this world and do exactly the same to any new world that has the misfortune to be deemed suitable for human habitation in the future.

    We also need to improve our technology so we can travel between worlds at a slightly more reasonable pace and time factor! And, although we are ridiculously good at breeding like rabbits here on Earth, the same would not necessarily apply in a space travel environment. That is still an unknown quantity for us. Given the current economic climate the possibility of financing such endeavours seems a depressingly long way off. But still we must dare to dream! Only then will we make fantasy a thrilling reality!

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