It is something that science fiction lovers have dreamed about for decades: the possibility of interstellar travel. The popular science fiction series Star Trek placed this achievement roughly two hundred years in the future, but mankind’s abilities may surpass what the fictional writers of the 1960s could ever have imagined.
“We will be able to do it on a scale of about a century,” said Gregory Benford, PhD, a professor of physics at the University of California at Irvine. He compared space exploration to the feats of Columbus and Magellan. “Unlike the Europeans, we can see our destinations already, we know they’re there.”
Benford spoke at the Crawford Family Forum Wednesday night, in a live telecast with KPCC’s NEXT science series host Mat Kaplan. Other guests included Benford’s twin brother and fellow physicist, James Benford, displayed on a monitor using Skype, and science fiction author David Brin, who called in and spoke over the phone.
Gregory and James Benford recently published a book, Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon, which is a compilation of fictional stories and scientific essays, all dealing with space exploration and interplanetary travel. All proceeds gained from book sales will go towards interstellar exploration research, according to the Benfords. The ideas and concepts referred to within the compilation were the main focus of discussion during the forum.
Throughout the night, the conversation continuously returned to the same point, that mankind has always felt the need to explore the unknown. In the days of Columbus and Magellan, that meant new lands, undiscovered territories. “Our great drive is to expand human horizons, in every sense of the word,” said G. Benford. “And you may have noticed on this planet that we’ve run out of horizon.”
While the exploration of the stars seemed a far-off fantasy to our ancestors, technology has made it possible for humans to dream big. “Now we can see other horizons,” he said. “They’re hanging there in the night sky, right outside this building.”
“Let me remind you that President Kennedy said we go to the moon and other things because they are hard, and starships are really hard,” said J. Benford. “Not only is the scale enormous, but the fact that we have people and our instrumentalities… that have a certain lifetime.” For this reason, he said, the concepts developed and included in the anthology vary widely in how they envisioned the future of space travel. Many methods would need to be considered to tackle the imagined difficulties.
Topics discussed ranged from technological advances to ethical dilemmas. At one point, J. Benford made reference to the “prime directive,” a guiding principle in Star Trek, which dictates non-interference with a developing alien civilization. Other debates involved the concepts of warp speed and wormholes, ideas largely made popular by the science fiction series.
In the end, G. Benford said, it would be up to private individuals and privately held companies to continue the progress of space exploration. “Entrepreneuring is a good way to explore new territories because you get smart, ambitious people to take the risk,” he said. “Governments don’t take risks. They’re about business as usual, that’s what’s happening now.” Funding for NASA, he said, was not as good as it was in the past. “NASA has turned into the post office. It used to be an exploratory agency, and now it’s an excuse to spend money,” he said. “The government’s ossified, they’ve become the post office. You can’t expect them to expand frontiers.”
J. Benford agreed with his brother that private organizations were necessary in this endeavor. “The interstellar organizations that are entirely private are pushing ahead on these ideas, and I think that is a great, invigorating factor,” he said. “We have a competition among organizations to find the best way to go to the stars. And we are trying to find ways of funding these efforts, and that’s why we did this book.”
Near the end of the night, Kaplan referenced an oft-debated question about space exploration: If humans are not the only intelligent life in the galaxy, then why haven’t we heard from other life forms? In response to that, G. Benford simply said, “My theory is that we live in [New] Jersey and the smart people are in Manhattan.”