Jacob's Reviews > Centauri Dreams: Imagining and Planning Interstellar Exploration

Centauri Dreams by Paul Gilster
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's review
May 16, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: science-and-nature, 2010-2011
Read from March 26 to April 25, 2010

Space is big. No, really, space is effing big. If you ever wondered just how effing big space is, let’s shrink the distances a moment: if the sun was the size of a grain of salt (making the earth thousands of times tinier still) the next three grains of salt, in the Alpha Centauri system, would still be seven miles away.

Get it? Got it? Properly awed, mind boggled, all that stuff? Good. That should tell you what NASA has to deal with. We’ve only been zooming around the solar system for a few decades, really. It still takes years just to send probes to the outer planets (New Horizons won’t reach Pluto until 2015), we still haven’t gone back to the Moon (much less Mars), and that oh-so-awesome manned Venus flyby mission never happened. So it’s easy to get impatient. We still measure travel distances in terms of astronomical units (AU, the average Earth-sun distance, roughly 93 million miles); thinking in terms of light-years will be even trickier.

Enter Paul Gilster. Gilster, who also publishes the fascinating Centauri Dreams blog, wants to know what needs to be done, now, that will help us launch efficient and independent robotic probes (and, later, manned ships) sometime within the next few decades that can conceivably travel to the Alpha Centauri system (or beyond) within a few centuries--but hopefully less time than that. It won’t be easy. Liquid fuel rockets are a joke and nuclear power isn’t such a good idea anymore, but antimatter engines, solar sails, lasers and fusion--don’t ask me to explain them, but those are promising. Just how promising is what Gilster set out to find in this book, traveling across the country to various think tanks, laboratories, and NASA-funded research centers that are all working on the latest technologies (and some theoretical ones) that could someday do the job. Obviously we have to think long-term, as even some of the methods we explore today could be rendered obsolete in ten or twenty years, while the technology we need to explore most (think nanotechnology) is still in very early stages. And even then, getting a probe to the next star isn’t the only big step: getting a probe there that can think for itself without relying on messages from a far-away Earth is just as important.

All heavy stuff (I’m still trying to wrap my head around antimatter as a fuel source), but vital and necessary reading for anyone interested in the far future of space exploration. It’s disappointing to occupy this point in history, when the last big leaps happened years ago and the next ones are decades away (and none of us will ever get to live on Mars), but we can’t expect to get anywhere if we wait for other people to do the work for us. There’s a lot of work to do.

But I still recommend keeping a towel around, just in case.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Nice! I'm depressed at how sad our space program is these days, and how NASA can't seem to find its own ass with a flashlight and a mirror, but this makes me all excited. And I'm also bummed to hear they scrapped a visit to Venus. I know Mars is sexier, but Venus is still pretty cool. Sing with me....*sulfur rain...sulfur rain...*

message 2: by Jason (new)

Jason That is a fantastic review! I really like salt.

message 3: by Jacob (last edited May 17, 2010 11:13PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jacob Ceridwen wrote: "Nice! I'm depressed at how sad our space program is these days, and how NASA can't seem to find its own ass with a flashlight and a mirror, but this makes me all excited."

I think NASA does what it can with what it gets, but I'd love to see what it could do with a (much) bigger budget, a well-defined mission statement that doesn't change with each new administration, and also, y'know, a way to get into space. The shuttles are almost retired and they won't be replaced for several years? Nice planning, guys.

Also: guts. Nothing we do will ever be as gutsy as that Venus mission. To go directly from the (relatively) simple and short Moon missions to a year-long, millions-of-miles round-trip flight to another friggin' planet would've been beyond awesome. Sure, the astronauts probably would have died of radiation poisoning or some alien plague, but still.

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