Image: An interstellar sail pushed by laser or microwave. Credit: Michael Carroll.

Starships of the Mind

by PAUL GILSTER on FEBRUARY 22, 2013

Michael Michaud wrote the essay that follows back in 1978 for a now-defunct magazine that never published it. In recent correspondence about Daedalus designer Alan Bond, Michael referred to the essay and I asked him to forward a copy, which had also passed through the hands of Freeman Dyson and Bob Forward not long after he wrote it. Although it is dated, Starships of the Mind does a wonderful job presenting the major interstellar propulsion ideas, leavened with Michael’s innate optimism, which has inspired me for many years. It’s a bit of starship history that deserves to be in circulation, and Michael was kind enough to agree. Many thanks are owed as well to my friend David Warlick, who scanned the original and, through the wonders of optical character recognition, rendered it into digital form.

Centauri Dreams readers will know Michael Michaud as the author of Contact with Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials (Springer, 2007), an essential book for anyone interested in SETI. Among his numerous other works are many on space exploration. Michael was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer for 32 years, serving as Counselor for Science, Technology and Environment at the U.S. embassies in Paris and Tokyo, and Director of the State Department’s Office of Advanced Technology. He has also been chairman of working groups at the International Academy of Astronautics on SETI issues.

By Michael A.G. Michaud

A giant is loose in the darkness of interstellar space. Its voracious maw, seventy five miles wide, sucks in particles of gas and dust, cutting a tunnel through the interstellar medium. In the monster’s interior, the miniature sun of a fusion engine converts atoms and molecules into propulsive energy, driving the giant forward, leaving a wake of superheated gas. Accelerating toward the speed of light, it races through the galaxy.

Have we tuned in on Star Trek? Not at all. This is merely a description of an interstellar ramjet, proposed by nuclear physicist Robert Bussard as one way of achieving interstellar flight.

Starflight is one of the great dreams of the 20th century. As long ago as 1918, the American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard wrote “The Ultimate Migration”, describing a journey to the stars by humans fleeing a dying Sun. During the 1930?s, science fiction writers like Olaf Stapledon began using interstellar scenarios in their stories. But, while Leslie Shepherd published a pioneering article on interstellar flight in 1952, few technical experts paid much attention.

Many scientists still argue that humans will never travel to other suns. If it is possible at all, they say, it would be so difficult, expensive, and time-consuming as to be not worth while. But others, with solid backgrounds and reputations in technical fields, are seeking ways to traverse the interstellar void. Starships are forming in their minds.

Read more: Starships of the Mind — Centauri Dreams.

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