Thursday, February 07, 2013

Parting Thoughts About TVIW

I enjoyed two brain-filling days this week at the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop (TVIW), taking notes as the conference "rapporteur," a fancy French word for reporter. The advantages of being a rapporteur are that you get a seat up front and plenty of room to set up a computer and type. The primary disadvantage you have is that you're so busy taking notes it's really difficult to absorb what's being said. Over the next week or so, I plan to go back over my notes and harvest what I can for article- and blog-writing purposes. My very high-level perspective comes from asking myself whether an interstellar workshop was really a practical thing to convene.
  • While most space advocacy conferences (ISDC, NewSpace, etc.) focus on current or near-term (within 25 years) space activities, TVIW concentrates on the long-term and very long term (50-500+ years).
  • The talks ranged from the practical (before we go to Alpha Centauri, where do we go and what do we need to do here in this solar system first?) to the esoteric (how might we detect alien races' starships around black holes?). They also included everyone from a 13-year-old Huntsville kid whose Geiger counter detected a gamma-ray burst before NASA to a former NASA astronaut to serious physicists and mathematicians pressing for better machines than the Large Hadron Collider to find that breakthrough that might get us to "warp drive" or something like it.
  • Someone has to focus on the long game because it is very easy to get bogged down or discouraged by the near term, especially if you are easily annoyed by bickering or bad news, which all too often floods the news channels.
  • Interstellar travel advocates are walking that fine line between concrete advocacy and science fiction because a lot of what they are advocating, while predictable if you understand how technology develops, might not happen within their lifetimes. There are a lot of leaps and stumbles that have to occur before we build technologies capable of sending humans starward--and even then, there's no guarantee whether those technologies would be employed that way, or when. As one attendee noted (name withheld as a courtesy), "It's difficult to sort out who's a serious visionary and who's a kook--and there are no set standards for that yet."
  • The attendees were serious-minded people, and I'd say most of them (90+ percent) had a realistic understanding of "interstellar politics." While they're passionate about problems 500 years or 5 billion years in the future, the average person is worrying about this week's bills. Some of the more visionary politicians can think beyond their current term. Most reflective people might consider the world they leave their grandchildren. But who really has the time, energy, or inclination to think about our civilization in the next millennium or our species when our sun expands into a Red Giant well beyond any conceivable horizon? Darned few. 
So when faced with the realistic dichotomy between present-minded thinking and passionate future-minded imagination, how do you at least get the future started in the right direction? This was a workshop, after all, not simply a conference at which to pontificate. The participants had to come out with (and agree to) some sort of practical, near-term plan that could tie the present to the future and still sow the seeds for technologies and space vehicles not yet born.

What they came up with was a straightforward goal: ensure that humanity has access to one terawatt of electrical power from Earth orbit by 2050. Ridiculous? Consider that every second, at our comfortable reserve 93 million miles away, every square meter of the sunward side of our planet is getting hit with 1,365 Watts of energy. (Go do the math--it's 1,365 X 255 X 10 to the 12th power.) Solar power is serious stuff in space, where there's no night or day and the sun is "on" all the time. One terawatt is about one-fourth of all the energy the U.S. consumes in a year.

What does all that energy have to do with interstellar travel? Well, let's say you had solar collectors large enough to collect even a small percent of that energy and transmit it to Earth as microwaves. How big would that collector have to be? One proposal was a solar array the size of Texas. If you had a civilization that could obtain the resources to build such an array in space, you'd have a civilization that could travel great distances through space, capture and mine asteroids, manufacture materials and massive structures in space; and transmit incredible energies across space to orbiting satellites for relay to Earth. That civilization would have people used to living in space for long periods at a time, far away from the mother planet. They'd be used to living in and repairing large spacecraft. They'd be used to solving problems days, weeks, or months away from help. A civilization capable of all that eventually could send human beings to other star systems based on the lessons learned doing useful things in our solar system...incidentally making our home world better in the process.

So, yeah: it's a little goofy to be thinking about building the starship Enterprise (or even a slower-than-light version of it) when there are a lot more important near-term concerns to think about. But give these folks a little credit: they are simultaneously naive, far-thinking, creative, and ambitious enough to consider such efforts worth doing.

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