The best way to predict the future is to invent it. –Alan Kay
Can we steer humanity away from environmental collapse, austerity, and war with a dream of a new tomorrow?
Formal programming began Friday at the 100 Year Starship Symposium in Houston, Texas. Dr. Mae Jemison opened by urging us to seek dramatic change and innovation if we’re to birth a better world. “We have to be audacious. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen by accident,” she told us. According to Jemison, space exploration began when we started studying the movements of the stars centuries ago. But recently we’ve lost our way. “Even here in #Houston we don’t always get what space has to do with us.” The 100 Year Starship wants to liberate the idea of space travel from rocket scientists and billionaires: “It must include the full range of humans.”
Jemison hurried through her remarks so that she could introduce our opening speaker, Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides. Whitesides is the Flight Director at Zero Gravity Corporation, where she’s racked up many hours of 0G flight time in short bursts on parabolic flights. With her husband, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, she cofounded Yuri’s Night, an international holiday dedicated to honoring pioneering moments of space flight. She plans to travel into space with Virgin Galactic in the future.
Whitesides speech was one of the most passionate I’ve heard all event. Space flight — especially interstellar travel — is a nerdy pursuit. As I discussed with Dr. Jemison after SXSW, even astronauts don’t always feel comfortable admitting they dream of going to the stars. But in her speech, Whitesides passion for the topic was real and unfiltered, her voice cracking with emotion as she introduced, then discussed the YouTube video at the top of this article. Her love of space seemed so visceral that she could not hide it if she wanted, and her openness encouraged us all to be the same.
Whitesides calls herself a “space muse,” and said she’s identified three points of focus she thinks are crucial to achieving the goals of the 100 Year Starship:
- Improving Ourselves. We have to be “ambassadors of an interstellar civilization.” She asked us to “be the Jedis we always wanted to be,” and work to make examples of a better way of living now, in our lives, if we hope to become the elevated species Carl Sagan predicts in his Pale Blue Dot speech.
- Cultivate the Overview Effect. When astronauts go to space, many of them experience a dramatic shift in perspective when they see the Earth from orbit. They realize that national boundaries are an illusion (none can be seen from there!) and how fragile our world is to the universe around it. We must find ways to share this effect with all of humanity.
- Public Outreach. “We have to keep this conversation alive,” she told us. By actively thinking ahead into the distant future, we can help invent that better tomorrow we really want. It’s up to everyone who dreams of space to fight against the loss of that dream.
She closed by quoting from Contact:
Ellie: Dad, do you think there’s people on other planets?
Ted Arroway: I don’t know, Sparks. But I guess I’d say if it is just us… seems like an awful waste of space.
Whitesides suggested we are on a historical cusp and, if we don’t take this opportunity to help humanity evolve, “that would be an awful waste of space.”
Returning to the stage, Dr. Jemison asked us “Who do we want to be? What future do we want to have?” 100 years, for any goal, is barely within the limits of our imagination, which is what makes this weekend’s thought experiment so important.
Other Friday Highlights
Much of the days are divided into simultaneous tracks with different unifying themes, each consisting of a series of 15-minute presentations. Some highlights:
- In Time-Distance Solutions, Charles Quarra asked whether we could build a light-bridge to the stars. Dr. Harold “Sonny” White discussed building Alcubierre Drives, which would warp space around a ship by creating a donut-shaped bubble of negative vacuum energy around the craft. But can we figure out how to do it with realistic amounts of energy on a spaceship smaller than the planet Jupiter?
- In Enhancing Life on Earth, Adrienne Provenzano and Loren O’Laughlin talked about adding the Arts to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to make STEAM. Provenzano asked whether this approach could help women fill more science roles, using Karen Nyburg — the first astronaut with a Pinterest — as one of her examples. O’Laughlin suggested “art bookends science” — it can inspire at the beginning of the process and help package science in culturally appealing ways. Not only should research teams consider adding an artist, scientists themselves must become more comfortable with art and design.
- And in Becoming an Interstellar Civilization, Michael Eugene Turner argued that some form of democracy would be necessary on any starship, though he thinks it’s more mature to think of them as self-contained worlds. It would need to be a more idealized form of democracy than we have on Earth, more collaborative, where no group is allowed to monopolize resources. He suggested building small, self-contained worlds — like those depicted in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 — as testbeds for experimental societies. But the track chair, John C. McKnight, reminded us that human greed is rooted in the primate-behavior driven competition for status, and we’ll have problems with long term space flight as long as status is linked to conspicuous consumption. One way we might redirect this is through gamification of human behavior — by rewarding us with “points” when we do good — though this concept is mostly being explored now in marketing and sales.
I briefly interviewed LeVar Burton, a member of the 100 Year Starship advisory council. It was an honor to chat (and a totally overwhelming moment for my inner Reading Rainbow and Star Trek fanboy). I’ll have that interview available soon.
See a collection of tweets, pictures and links on Kit’s Day 2 Storify.
Photo by Kit O’Connell, released under a Creative Commons license.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides employer and job description.