The year is 2080. America's space shuttle Enterprise has long been replaced by a larger winged craft named Argo, flown by men and women from 12 nations. Argo is out beyond the moon, following the unseen tracks of another spacecraft, almost 500 million miles away.
On the moon itseIf, giant antennas operated by the Lunar Astronomical Observatory silently track the same spacecraft. Suddenly, electronic signals pour in from deep space. The men and women on the moon and aboard Argo grin broadly and shake hands. Project Daedalus has begun. The first starship built by the people of Earth has left the orbit of Jupiter and is on its way out of the solar system.
Fanciful? Stanley Kubrick's next movie? Not on your parsec. Project Daedalus is the dead-serious brainchild of some of the best brains in the British Interplanetary Society. Thirteen of them, to be precise. All professionals in the British rocket and aircraft establishment, who put in more than 10,000 man-hours in the last five years to blueprint what they describe as the first workable flight to a near-by star.
Daedalus, they call it, after the ingenious Greek craftsman who built the Labyrinth for Minos of Crete and then the wings that took him away from Crete when Minos set out to murder Daedalus and his son, Icarus. Daedalus. The project is well-named.
The final report describing Project Daedalus has just been printed by the British Interplanetary Society and it is a serious and scholarly work of almost 200 pages. But it's got more than scholarship. It is as fascinating and compelling a work as good science fiction. It's bedrocked in imagination. Parts of it could have been written by J.R.R. Tolkien.
You can't build a starship without a star to fly to and so the BIS has chosen Barnard's Star, a dwarf star smaller, cooler and older than our sun that lies almost six light years from Earth. Barnard's Star is not the nearest star to our solar system. Alpha Centauri is closer. But Barnard's Star wobbles about the heavens in a way that strongly suggests it supports a solar system of its own that takes in as many as six planets.
Getting to Barnard's Star won't be easy. The BIS figures it will take at least 20 years to design a starship, test out its nuclear-pulsed rockets and fly at least one prototype out of the solar system and back in again to test the starship concept. There's also the matter of money. The BIS never estimates what Daedalus will cost, except to say it will be too much for a single nation or even a group of nations. The Whole Earth must agree to build a starship.
Of course, there will be no people aboard the starship Daedalus. As close as Barnard's Star is to Earth, it will still take 50 years to get there and when it gets there it will never return. It will just speed by the star and its companion planels (if it has any) and survive long enough to radio back its findings to Earth before silently disappearing into the void.
The BIS recommends that people in their 20s be picked to work on the project when Daedalus leaves the Earth. That way, most of them will still be alive when the starship reaches its destination. Even getting to Barnard's Star in 50 years is going to take a brand-new means of propulsion, one that will take the starship to its target at an unheard of speed of 22,000 miles a second. That's 12 percent of the speed of light.
There is only one way a starship can reach that kind of speed. It must use a means of propulsion that makes use of the energy released by tiny hydrogen bombs. A pulsed thermonuclear bombs behind it, then uses the enormous energies released in the explosions to push along at ever-increasing speeds through space.
The trouble with this is you need a fuel made of helium-three to sustain these high explosions. Where does one find this exceedingly rare isotope of helium? Only in the atmosphere of the planet Jupiter. The BIS suggests that the Daedalus spacecraft be assembled there, and then the helium-three could be "mined" out of the Jovian atmosphere at the same time.
How does one mine a planet without miners? By using robots, of course - the likes of which haven't been seen anywhere outside the movies. Two of these robots would be assigned to Daedalus and they'll be called "wardens." Once they'll assembled the spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter and stored the helium-three, they'd take on the task of watching over the starship and repairing anything that broke down, all the way out to Barnard's Star.
Next to the wardens, the most intriguing passengers aboard would be the computers, the starship's captain and crew. Invested with executive authority, the computers would make all the decisions on the 50-year flight to the star. Not one human decision would be made once Daedalus left the environs of Jupiter. The reason is simple. By the time Daedalus encounters its star, the time it takes for a signal to reach the starship from Earth will be 12 years. Even a simple decision like a change in course will have to be made by computer.
The main reason for going to Barnard's Star and not other nearby stars like Wolf's Star or Sirlus or Alpha Centauri is astronomers' suspicion that there may be planets in orbit around Barnard's Star. What better triumph would there be than for Daedalus not only to make this discovery but to examine the planets up close, send photographs of them back to Earth and possibly even discover some form of life on one of the planets.
The BIS has devised a beguiling scheme for Daedalus to do all this. The starship will carry two enormous telescope, which will scan the region around Barnard's Star starting when the starship is 10 years away from it. If and when the telescopes spot the planets, their number and location will be pinpointed by the starship's computer. Course changes will be made. Instrumented probes will be deployed from the starship, each of them targeted for the planets in orbit around the star.
When the starship reaches the star, it will speed by 22,000 miles a second without slowing down. Its instruments, its cameras, its 18 probes will be whirring away, taking measurements and pictures that will be stored away in its computers. The 50-year voyage will end in an encounter that lasts less than a day.
For two years after the starship passes beyond the star, it will send back a steady flood of information on where it's been. What it's seen and how much it learned. When the coded signals reach the solar system, they will be intercepted by an enormous relay satellite placed in orbit around the planet Jupiter. The realy satellite will pass the information on to Earth, where the grandchildren of the people who started it all will be waiting to receive it.
Will it be worth waiting for? The BIS thinks so and passes judgment on it in an oblique way. This is the way they put it: "If we are unwilling to commit many generations to an interstellar voyage in an "ark-type" vehicle, then mankind may be destined to orbit his small yellow star until it dwindles." Not a happy thought.