About the SA Blog Network

Guest Blog

Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American
Guest Blog HomeAboutContact

Review: Going Interstellar: Build Starships Now!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

Book Review:
Going Interstellar, edited by Jack McDevitt and Les Johnson.
ISBN-13: 9781451637786
Publisher: Baen Books
Publication date: 5/29/2012

Writing a book about humans colonizing space, I’ve recently learned, is a difficult thing; it takes a real effort to imagine humanity flourishing–or at least surviving in something other than a quasi-Medieval, post-Collapse form–some centuries in the future. But while it feels callous to rake aside current conflagrations to examine the embers of a better future, we need only look out our window to see the consequences of acting without thought for the future. One of anthropology’s greatest contributions to humanity is that it has revealed our species’ time depth, that we have not popped up from nowhere, but that we have a past. And if the future is built from the past, and if we are to have a tolerable future—including the colonization of space as an insurance policy for the genus Homo—we better start to think about that future, starting now.

Thinking about distant futures has often been categorized as ‘science fiction’ or the now more-popular ‘speculative fiction.’ Either way, this body of literature has faced twin perils. On the one hand, stories focusing on the technologies of human space colonization feel detached and inhuman because, of course, those technologies are only tools for the larger project of dispersing humanity from Earth. On the other hand, stories focusing on the human domain of space colonization can feel like a cop-out, ignoring the massive technical issues to replay ancient dramas of human relationships. Combining both elements to make a story that feels technically realistic but does not ‘lose’ humanity is a tall order.

Many of the stories in Going Interstellar fill that order. And as a bonus, the volume includes a number of exciting and clarifying popular-science essays on the technologies needed for dispersing humanity far out from Earth. As an anthropologist with an interest in the long-term human future, my focus is on the human dimensions of space colonization (though I am fascinated by the technologies involved; they’re as fundamental to human adaptation as any artifact, including chipped stone tools over 2.5 million years old). It is from that perspective that I review Going Interstellar; what does it have to offer about the human dimensions of adaptation to the universe beyond Earth?


Choices tackles the reality that human colonists arriving at a prospect world after long hibernation might in many ways live, at first, with many 19th century technologies, and that the mindset they bring will have to be amenable to that situation. The story highlights the fact that off-Earth people will not be replicating suburban American life, and that we should be prepared to change our expectations. This story is by Les Johnson, Deputy Manager of the Advanced Concepts Office at NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.

A Country for Old Men, by science fiction titan Ben Bova, plays out the familiar theme of humanity’s struggle with its own creations, in this case an artificial intelligence that might endanger space colonists due to its entrenched rules of action. The struggle here is as compelling as that of Bowman –vs- HAL in the science fiction masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps because artificial intelligences are closer to reality today than interstellar starships, this scenario has a particularly immediate feel.

Lucy, by the volume’s co-editor, the Nebula-winning Jack McDevitt, engagingly suggests that the human predilection for craft, intrigue and even rebellion might well–even if incidentally–be programmed into our coming artificial intelligences, with unexpected results. Some of those results might be beneficial. The idea of artificial intelligences choosing to voyage into deep space on their own is both unsettling and enchanting.

Lesser Beings, by science fiction author Charles E. Gannon, imagines interstellar voyaging in the distant future, when humanity has spread so wide in the universe that Earth is consigned to myth, and voyages to distant star systems and planets is used to exile clans vanquished in endless wars of conquest. The story brings up an interesting case of the deliberate destruction of technology in order to force humanity to bring its wisdom in line with its technical intelligence.

Louise Marley’s Design Flaw reminds us that whatever our technologies, we can’t wait around on Earth for humans to ‘perfect themselves’ before heading for the stars; we are social primates and should expect a degree of proclivity towards social ranking, self-aggrandizement and exploitation in our species. But we also have a capacity for compassion and cooperation, and some of our cultures have encoded these inclinations in important cultural principles of behavior. I am optimistic that our better natures will always prevail, despite occasional darkness, and that the Enlightenment will not easily be put back into a bottle.

Hugo, Nebula and Locus award winner Michael Bishop contributes Twenty Lights to ‘The Land of the Snow’ , imagining the fascinating scenario of a non-Western culture taking to the stars; we find that however different their philosophies might be on the surface, all cultures must grapple with material realities of existence—for example, trajectories and fuel expenditures. An important element of this story is at the end, when an ancient tradition—dispersal of mandala sand—is altered by the Dalai Lama to mark a certain, new occasion. This reminds me that the adaptive power of ritual and symbolism are not restricted to their value as invariant reminders of tradition, but is also found in their mutability, with the act of ritual alteration itself taking on significance because it ‘breaks tradition’ but in a culturally accepted way. Off-Earth colonists will do well to understand what anthropology has learned about what culture is, and how it works by adapting our behavior to new circumstances.

In Sarah A. Hoyt’s The Big Ship and the Wise Old Owl we encounter another familiar trope in space-colonization fiction, that of a titanic interstellar vessel on a multigenerational voyage in which the inhabitants have all but forgotten both their origin—Earth—and their destination. Robert Heinlein’s classic 1941 story of the same theme, Universe, examined how heretics might break through unquestioned tradition of the ship to reveal that it was not its own universe, but actually a giant craft hurtling through the immensity of space…from somewhere, and to somewhere. In The Big Ship and the Wise Old, inhabitants of the starship make similarly startling discoveries, this time because their ancestors predicted such dilemmas and encoded instructions for solving them in nursery rhymes.

Siren Song, by five-time Hugo award winner (and 35-time Hugo nominee!) Mike Resnick sketches out the origin of future myths about space travel, perhaps the more mysterious of which will serve as motivation for future explorers. Currently we have a small stock of matter for building such myths, including the astounding salvaging of Apollo 13, the terrifying last moments of the space shuttle Columbia, and people walking and even sleeping and dreaming on the moon, as related in Al Reinart’s dreamy video documentary on the Apollo missions, For All Mankind (1989). Reading Siren Song reminded me of the Reinart film, and its humanization of the astounding early exploration of space.


Antimatter Starships–the first of two essays by Dr. Gregory Matloff, a former professor of astronomy, NASA consultant and the author of several books on the technologies of space exploration—clearly describes what antimatter is, how it can be manufactured, and why, if it can be harnessed, it has significant prospects for use as propulsion for interstellar craft. While antimatter manufacture and control on the scales needed are beyond our current technology, they hold promise for the enormous energy demands of interstellar flight at high speeds, and remind us of the importance of fundamental research in physics. Dr. Matloff’s second essay, Fusion Starships, clarifies how fusion power works and demonstrates that it is the most likely energy source for the near future of interstellar drives, considering that it produces roughly a million times more energy per unit of fuel than any chemical (e.g. liquid rocket) engine. Future fusion drives could derive thrust from tiny amounts of mass processed at the rear of heavily-shielded interstellar craft—an idea studied for decades, now—or by scooping up interstellar hydrogen to process as one moves forward, like a whale filtering phytoplankton from seawater. Both ideas have their problems, but continue to be studied, with fusion as the common ground. As a side note, this is the first essay I’ve ever read that allows me a clear, visceral understanding of the significance of Einstein’s equation, e=mc^2.

In Solar and Beamed Energy Sails Dr. Les Johnson (Deputy Manager of the Advanced Concepts Office at NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center) introduces the fascinating concept of solar sails, an idea most of us have heard about or least glimpsed in one science-fiction film or another. The idea is simple; use the solar wind—energy that radiates from the sun, and which pushes on everything it encounters (though comparatively lightly)—to push starships equipped with giant, lightweight sails, just as wind pushes ships on Earth. As usual, there are technical problems to overcome, but the concept is mathematically sound and has even been proved in space with test models, such as the Japanese IKAROS probe that flew past Venus in 2010; several other tests in the works will continue to refine the principle.

Richard Obousy’s Project Icarus provides the history of, and describes, his engagement in a team of researchers designing a manned spacecraft, with modern or near-modern technologies, capable of reaching a number of specific targets beyond our solar system. Obousy, a consulting physicist and associate editor of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, reveals that this fascinating project is currently reviewing nearly 20 possible fusion drives. Interestingly, Obousy writes “…a quick glance at the Icarus designers reveals an average age of close to thirty. Thus, one hope is that, upon completion of the project, an adept team of competent interstellar engineers will have been created, and that this team will continue to kindle the dream of interstellar flight…”

This statement reminds me of emphasis on long-term futures that will be required to plan, and successfully carry out, the human dispersal from Earth.


Cameron M. Smith About the Author: Cameron M. Smith is an anthropologist at Portland State University with an equal interest in the human past and the human future. He has recently published The Fact of Evolution (Prometheus, 2011) and, later this year, Emigrating from Earth: Human Adaptation and Space Colonization (Springer-Praxis, 2012). He is writing a feature article for Scientific American magazine about the challenges of space colonization.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 21 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. RJ Malmad 3:50 pm 06/16/2012

    I am amazed that people supposedly with scientific and/or technological educations and so-called reasoning skills continue to talk about firecracker technologies and solar sails as a means of interstellar propulsion. Is everyone drowning in NASA’s Kool-Aid? First clue to the future of propulsion: Don’t overcome your inertia; allow inertia to overcome you. Clue number two: Look to Leonardo for answers. -rjm

    Link to this
  2. 2. Jan Cosgrove 8:39 pm 06/16/2012

    At this stage, flying off to WHAT? And then, what then? Anti-matter propelled carts before practical horses?

    Link to this
  3. 3. Jan Cosgrove 8:41 pm 06/16/2012

    Oh, don’t forget AC Clarke’s “Songs of Distant Earth” in the fiction section. But first of all, just keep building those tallies of planetary systems …. The we might have somewhere to go …. maybe.

    Link to this
  4. 4. rbrtwjohnson 9:59 pm 06/16/2012

    Despite having a lower energy density than antimatter, the aneutronic nuclear fusion is far more advantageous. Antimatter is problematic to be obtained/produced, stored, and used as a means of propulsion and power generation because the antimatter-matter annihilation byproducts are mainly gamma rays and neutrinos that are very difficult and dangerous to work. On the other hand, the aneutronic fusion fuels (lithium, boron and helium-3) are easier to be obtained, stored, and used as a means of generating energy and propulsion without any risk of radiation to the crewmembers because the fusion products are principally charged alpha particles that can be easily deflected/shielded by electric/magnetic fields and directly used for electricity generation and propulsion. It is millions of times more powerful than chemical fuels without the disadvantages of antimatter.

    Link to this
  5. 5. jtdwyer 7:38 am 06/17/2012

    I’m all for sending a billion or more volunteers towards the periphery of the Solar system – it’d be a great service to humanity!

    Link to this
  6. 6. JamesDavis 8:01 am 06/17/2012

    Unless you figure out how to go thousands, or millions, of times faster than light, and everyone is convinced that nothing in the Universe can exceed the light speed limit, which I am not convinced of that, you will never see anything in space but space. But there could be a way, if you are really sure you would like to live on another planet other than Earth, or visit another planet similar to Earth… …If we can break down our bodies to subatomic particles and retain our conscious and connect it to a computer so we can see where we are going and what we are coming to, and then restore them to their original form if we do find a nice place to land and we want to stay there for awhile, we could place ourselves in containers and travel through space at whatever speed our knowledge, or the Universe, will allow our ships to travel without worry of decomposing. But if we could figure out how to do that, we may not want to restore our bodies when we get to a planet we like and want to stay at for awhile. …Then, if we wanted to leave the planet, we could just call our ship(s) and they would pick us up and we could leave to find another planet. We could even take a couple of everything on Earth with us, since it would be broken down into subatomic particles, couldn’t we, so we wouldn’t get lonely or start missing everything we already have here, or got familiar with and want to keep, on Earth…we could just take everything with us. I know I would like to take my dog with me everywhere I go.

    Do you think we could have already figured out how to do that and our home is actually somewhere around the center of the Universe where our knowledge and abilities are millions of years more advanced than they are here? After all, in less than a hundred Earth years we went from riding donkeys to landing rovers on Mars. Maybe it is time we headed back home, I’m getting a little tired and starting to miss everything back there.

    Link to this
  7. 7. geojellyroll 8:17 am 06/17/2012

    “whatever our technologies, we can’t wait around on Earth for humans to ‘perfect themselves’ before heading for the stars”.

    Huh?…it’s all about technology and the principles of matter and energy.

    As soon as a physics is tweeked for convenience in a story it goes from science fiction to science fantasy.

    Link to this
  8. 8. jgrosay 4:24 pm 06/18/2012

    Is anybody able to say that nobody has already find a way for travelling between stars, and has already filled all the acceptable places to stay, or hasn’t made us some kind of dumb slaves?
    Is anybody able to provide a reasonable approach on how to travel to stars – and come back -, different to the romantic sailing on stellar winds or something like?. Sailors that had crossed the Magellan strait gave themselves the right of wearing an earring, to stood still in front of the kings, and urinating against the wind. Is there anything like for space travellers?

    Link to this
  9. 9. DaniEder 6:00 pm 06/18/2012

    The word “Starship” embodies a fundamental assumption that we would travel in a metal can with some kind of engine in the back. I present two alternatives which don’t make that assumption:

    (1) Slow interstellar – You colonize a sufficiently large Centaur, Kuiper Belt, or Comet body, which are already weakly tied to the Sun, and give them a little kick. Sufficiently large means big enough to eventually house millions of people. Occasionally you pass by an Oort cloud object or rogue planet and can load up on supplies. Eventually you get to another star, but what is the hurry? You brought civilization with you.

    (2) Interstellar Fax – You send a probe ahead of you very quickly, and it builds a receiving station at the destination star. You scan a person at atomic resolution, and send the description. Sending a description takes a million times less energy than sending the atoms themselves, so there is a huge incentive to figure out how. At the other end, the receiver reassembles the person. To the traveler the trip takes no time at all. To everyone else it takes as long as the speed of light to get there.

    If you object that we don’t know how to scan people at atomic resolution, well, we don’t know how to make fusion work, or store antimatter either. Unless you adopt the slow travel method, which could be done with near-term technology, you will need to make a breakthrough somewhere before attempting interstellar travel. The only question is which breakthrough will come first?

    Link to this
  10. 10. christinaak 6:33 pm 06/18/2012

    Given the perhaps insurmountable hurdles to space travel outside our own solar system, I do not think it is realistic to think that we will colonize anywhere outside of our solar system. Aside from the myriad problems (and potentially catostrophic) that can arise during spaceflight (including maintenance issues, life support failure, refueling difficulties, cosmic ray exposure, irreparaple hull damage from high speed objects, etc.), there is also the problem of building a colony with a failsafe (with multiple backup systems) life support system on any extraterrestrial body that lacks a breathable atmosphere (with a small liklihood of finding any planets in the ‘goldilocks zone’ near to us). Ther is also the problem of resupply, development of a local food source, access to medical care and supplies and the list goes on and on. Can anyone seriously think that we will be able to colonize outside our solar system? Oh and there are probably engineering (as well as special relativity) limits to the speed that any spacecraft can manage-most likely only a small fraction of the speed of light.

    Link to this
  11. 11. scandiacus 6:42 pm 06/18/2012

    Hello, all; I’m Cameron Smith, author of this review (my Sci Am name being ‘scandiacus’, the genus of one of my favorite life forms, the snowy owl). Thank you for taking the time to read my review. I have a few replies to items above;

    RE propulsion technologies, I am not qualified to evaluate them: I am an anthropologist. As an anthropologist, I am thinking about futures (in the context of this book) that might occur should one or more of these propulsion technologies become available. If they do, my question is, how can we best equip humanity for a dispersal from Earth? I believe we can best equip ourselves with a thorough understanding of both biological and cultural evolution; and the two are so intertwined that in anthropology we have invented the term ‘biocultural evolution’. That is my focus.

    RE the issue of ‘waiting for humanity to perfect itself’ before migrating away from Earth, my point is that one of the most common critiques I encounter when bringing up this topic is that humanity is too immature for it, and that all we will do is move our problems elsewhere. In part, I agree, but only to the extent that, as mentioned, large social primates are normally strictly ranked in their social arrangements. This is _not_ to support the fallacy that _Might Makes Right_ or even that the way we are (as primates) is the way we ought to be, morally. I am just suggesting that the idea that we should wait until we are completely ‘sorted out’ as humans here on Earth before attempting to migrate beyond Earth seems utopian. I don’t think that space colonies or interstellar starships will be utopias, because I don’t think utopias will ever exist. Humans are social and that sociality leads to friction in all primates (and many other social life forms). I also think that on the timescales that I’m concerned with, we don’t necessarily have the luxury of ‘fixing humanity’ before heading off of Earth; all ancient civilizations have either collapsed or gone into Dark Ages, and there is so much to lose, now (in my opinion), that dispersal of our genus beyond Earth is not just an option, but an imperative (that only works if you value the Renaissance / Enlightenment values of individual freedoms and scientific demands for evidence to support a claim, as I do).

    RE the comment that “it is all about technology”, I simply disagree. Colonization of the Pacific, starting just over 3,000 years ago in SE Asia / Australasia, was not ‘about’ seagoing vessels, or ‘about’ starpath navigation; those are simply tools. The point is to find new places to live, and whatever technology is needed to accomplish that is somewhat peripheral. But since this will be the most challenging adaptation in the history of our genus, our relationship with technology must improve. And, we must have a peace with the idea of cultural change, because in tandem with technological change will occur cultural change, just as significant to making a success of human colonization beyond Earth as any millimeter of wire.

    I am happy to clarify anything above, or in the review — just post here, and I’ll reply :)


    Link to this
  12. 12. jack.123 7:03 pm 06/18/2012

    Clearly the first step of go to the stars is to go to the asteroids first.All the materials we need to build the ships we need can be found there.The thought of putting the materials in orbit from Earth to go to the stars would be at such a high cost that it would never be done.But if we mine ,and build these ships there it elimnates cost doing so fron Earth.

    Link to this
  13. 13. subterra 8:38 pm 06/18/2012

    Well before we figure out how to haul our physical asses across interstellar distances, we will very likely have a quite competent artificial intelligence, so why not just send them instead? Besides which, humans and their AIs could very well decide to fuse by that point anyhow, making the point rather moot.

    Link to this
  14. 14. quizzical 3:18 pm 06/19/2012

    This article and blog thread is too totally ridiculous to have been included in SciAm! I am surprised. It is not even worth the bits and bytes required to print it.

    Link to this
  15. 15. christinaak 6:05 pm 06/19/2012

    jack.123, It would cost many times more to build the necessary infrastructure, manufacturing asparatus and failsafe housing (for staff) on an asteroid (perhaps a thousand times more) than it would on earth. I am a trekkie but I know that interstellar space travel is nothing more than fantasy. On the otherhand intrasolar system, space travel is possible (and expensive enough itself), and perhaps it may be possible to mine the planets and moons (in our solar system)for natural resources for use on earth. Of course there will have to be tremendous improvements in technology before this dream becomes fiscally sound (and it will remain an extremely dangerous enterprise).

    Link to this
  16. 16. christinaak 6:07 pm 06/19/2012

    Oops I meant to say…manufacturing apparatus…

    Link to this
  17. 17. Chris Miller 5:43 pm 06/21/2012

    I’m (regretfully) unconvinced that it will ever be possible to flit around the galaxy in FTL ships. But (if we don’t fry ourselves) it seems almost certain that within 100 years we’ll be able to replicate human levels of intelligence using machines. I think it will be these ‘children’ that will explore the galaxy. No matter to them that it may take decades or even thousands of years to reach the next star.

    Link to this
  18. 18. jack.123 6:50 pm 06/21/2012

    Who said anything about people being sent to asteroids?Robots would be able to do the job.Besides building ships, sending resources and ships back to Earth is a given.If we wait for a perfect safe way for people to go it will never be done.By the time ships are being sent back,safer ships to go into orbit will have been built.But the danger will always be there.The next step has never been for the faint of heart.

    Link to this
  19. 19. christinaak 10:36 am 06/22/2012

    It is difficult enough to get public support for funding our current space program. Does anyone really believe that governments will fund a space program that will not return a benefit (if at all) for hundreds or thousands of years from the date of launch? In addition, robots are not homo sapiens, and I do not think very many people (including myself) will be enthused with the idea that our species may perish (because we can never colonize outside of our solar system), but machines will do quite well after we are gone (because they can go where we can not).

    Link to this
  20. 20. hungry doggy 5:27 pm 06/22/2012

    The universe has an absolute speed limit. You cannot ever travel faster than light. I think everyone reading SA already knows that. Additionally, as a practical matter accelerating to anything even close to the speed of light would require enormouse amounts of energy. Do a quick back of the envelope calculation. To accelerate a Star Trek type ship to even a tenth the speed of light would require more energy than all the total energy that humanity has ever generated. We are talking enormous enormous enormous energy.

    Second, stellar distances are so great that for all practical purposes you can’t cross them. The nearest star (Alpha Centauri) is four light years away. But that is not say that you would find a suitable planet that close. It could very well be the case that the nearest planet you could actually live on or that you could terra-form might be a few hundred light years away, amybe even a few thousand light years away. No one knows. At a hundred light years distance at a tenth the speed the light you are talking about a journey of a thousand years inside a tin can.

    And don’t forget the physical danger during that thousand years – radiation exposure, collisions with rocks and other pointy objects, accidents, etc.

    My point is that travel beyond our solar system will probably never happen. Sorry. I’d like to see it as much as anyone. But it ain’t gonna happen.

    Link to this
  21. 21. hhnabipour 12:47 pm 10/11/2012

    Actually I have a propulsion invention just for outer space and interstellar purposes. Check it out on my website:

    I approached NASA numerous times, soliciting my proposal for my interstellar propulsion technology. But they turned me down each time saying we only deal with US-based firms. I even offered my technology to them for FREE for development, they still were not interested. If only, and only, I could get a tiny fraction of those billions of TAX money which is being spent on “research”, I could do a better job at it than the entire NASA’s+ Lockheed Martin’s+ ATK’s+ P&W’s…. engineers and scientists combined. Seriously, people only need to think outside the box and beyond. That’s all it took me, well for 4 years.

    -Hossein Nabipour, inventor of the first practical interstellar propulsion engine

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article