A Prototype to Explore the Stars

SpaceRip’s timely new documentary, Black Hole Starship, provides a delightful account of humankind’s first tentative ventures into outer space and a fascinating preview of imaginative technologies that could help attain the goal of human travel to far-away destinations in the Solar System and beyond.

As the video makes clear, however, theoretical propulsion systems based on anti-matter or Hawking radiation models owe as much to science fiction as to practical science and engineering. Yes, for example, we might eventually contain and harness the energy of minuscule black holes to propel spacecraft on interstellar journeys, but that capability lies far beyond the horizon.

Moving Forward

Taking the next steps in human space exploration will depend upon incremental advances in multiple technologies, spacecraft design and manufacture, and life-support systems that are only now being imagined and developed.  We might anticipate occasional revolutionary leaps, but generally we should expect step-by-step evolutionary progress.  It will be a journey down a very long road.

NASA's Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts to and from deep space destinations. (Image credit: NASA)

The need for bold, sustainable plans in support of the ideal of human space exploration leads to a less-discussed, but crucial, necessity:  political leadership and guidance.  In the end, whether the endeavor is pursued separately by nation states, internationally by a consortium of countries, or through some sort of large-scale public/private partnership, political and governmental leadership will be critical to success.

“I regard the decision . . . to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.” – President John F. Kennedy, speech at Rice University, 1962

Setting the Course

Interestingly, last week a bipartisan group of U.S. senators called upon NASA to develop a “strategic framework” for space exploration by humans.  The proposed NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016 aims to provide the space agency with guidelines and a degree of certainty as the United States undergoes a change in presidential administrations this coming January.

“The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.” – President Ronald Reagan, following the Challenger space shuttle disaster, 1986

Among the bill’s provisions is a directive to NASA to create “a critical decision plan to expand human presence beyond low Earth orbit, including to cislunar space, the moons of Mars, the surface of Mars, and beyond.”  In other words, assuming the bill is passed by Congress and signed by the president, NASA will soon operate under a legal imperative to plan the exploration of the fabled “final frontier” and eventually to send humans where none have gone before.  Captain James T. Kirk of Star Trek’s fictional starship Enterprise would beam with approval at this small but important step forward.

If a Black Hole Starship is ever to be built, politicians and administrators as well as scientists and engineers will have to be on board.  The grandest plans require the boldest thinking and leadership – and the determination to pursue the goals to the ends of the Universe.  Presidents Kennedy and Reagan understood this.  Let’s hope that 21st century leaders understand it just as clearly.