Ex-astronaut in Houston aims for stars as travel destination
Former astronaut Jemison aims for travel destinations among the stars
Most people can't fathom the vast distances between the sun and even its closest neighbors.
Consider the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which earlier this year made international headlines after becoming the first man-made object to depart the solar system after nearly 40 years of zipping away from Earth. Were the sun in Houston and the nearest star system in Los Angeles, Voyager would have traveled less than one mile of an interstellar journey.
The interstellar chasm is so great it's audacious — some might say preposterous — to consider sending humans to visit worlds around other stars.
But Mae Jemison, a former astronaut, is having the time of her life dreaming just that dream. "All my life I've liked challenges," said Jemison, the first black woman to fly in space.
This seemingly crazy notion of flying to distant worlds has begun to shake off some of the "giggle" factor in recent years, however.
Foremost, in 2011, U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and NASA's Ames Center offered $500,000 to an organization willing to begin thinking about and planning a mission to a nearby star.
"The 100 Year Starship study is about more than building a spacecraft or any one specific technology," Paul Eremenko, Defense Advanced's coordinator for the study, said at the time. "We endeavor to excite several generations to commit to the research and development of breakthrough technologies ... to advance the goal of long-distance space travel but also to benefit mankind."
A group organized by Jemison won the grant and created the 100 Year Starship program, based in Houston.
The idea of interstellar human travel has gained further credence during the last decade because, for the first time, scientists have begun to find Earth-sized planets around other stars.
Lee Billings, who wrote "Five Billion Years of Solitude," a book about the astronomers who pioneered the discovery of exoplanets, said the scientists are well aware that their work is akin to the first primitive efforts 500 years ago to map the Western Hemisphere.
"That's something that keenly, achingly informs their work and their thoughts," Billings said. "These researchers realize they are part of what may be a much greater, grander story that begins but does not end upon the Earth and perhaps even extends out beyond the solar system into the vast frontier of interstellar space."
It is one thing, of course, to glimpse shadows of these planets on their stars. It is quite another to fly humans to them. Of this, Jemison is aware.
During an interview, she cited a 1901 novel written by H.G. Wells about a fanciful trip by a businessman and scientist to the moon, titled "The First Men in the Moon." There they found a civilization of insect-like extraterrestrials.
"We knew very little about anything in terms of space technology and rocketry when that book was written, and yet 70 years later we were on the moon," Jemison said. "Our technological arc is much steeper now. We're at a point where our knowledge and our ability to research and find out things is much greater than it was in 1901. So while it may be a really, really hard problem, I don't think it's beyond human capabilities."
The project has captured the imagination of some notable public officials, including former President Bill Clinton, who served as the honorary chair of the first annual meeting in 2012.
"This important effort helps advance the knowledge and technologies required to explore space, all while generating the necessary tools that enhance our quality of life on Earth," Clinton said at the time.
Last month, the organization held its second annual meeting in Houston. It included technical discussions of propulsion systems to cover light-years of distance as well as softer sciences such as what these intrepid explorers would wear. It was a mix of science and science fiction, of physical and social sciences, of professional scientists and amateur observers.
"Some of the hard-core technical people are disappointed," said Planetary Society Emeritus Executive Director Lou Friedman, in a podcast for his organization, after attending.
That's because Jemison is seeking to create an inclusive organization, to bring together people from around the world and different backgrounds and get them to buy in on the idea. "Personally," Friedman said, "I think it is an inspiring idea."
Jemison said her experiences in the space program and since leaving NASA in 1993 have taught her that it's not just rocket scientists that are fascinated by space, but people from all walks of life. Every child, she says, looks up at the nighttime sky and wonders what might be out there.
Developing a mission to send a group of humans into space for, at minimum, decades will require more than rockets. It will require a lot of social science and almost certainly would need to be a global effort. Among the questions to explore is whether a human society could exist for multiple generations on a confined spacecraft traveling through space or whether cryogenics would need to be perfected before a long-term journey.
Of course it will take a lot of whiz-bang rocket technology, too.
Jemison said an important goal of the organization — which is financially dependent on private donors as the federal grant has run its course — is educating the public about the benefits of such an ambitious quest. "We believe pursuing an extraordinary tomorrow will create a better world today," says the organization's motto.
"We know, for example, that we're not going to get there with fossil fuels or any kind of chemical rocket fuels," Jemison said. "So we're going to have to do something different, something bigger. If we can just go a small step of the way toward that kind of technology, then we could start to transform energy production on Earth."
Jemison, who grew up in Chicago, has lived in Houston since moving here to become an astronaut in 1987.
Sure, she likes the warmer weather, but she also said Houston is a great city to live in and conduct business. And for the purposes of the 100 Year Starship, it's the best place to be.
"Houston has every right to be at the forefront of future human exploration of space," she said. "But sometimes I think Houston takes its space program for granted. And that's one of the things that worries me, and it's why I'm committed to holding the annual symposium here."
"Houston has a tremendous wealth of science and technology. We shouldn't see it as a right. We have every reason to be there, but it's not just something that's going to come to us because Johnson Space Center was put here 50 years ago."
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