Sunday Times, 17 April 2016
Accelerating a human being from a standing start to 100m miles an hour in two minutes is unwise. Something not unlike strawberry jam glued to the inside of the spaceship would be all that was left of the gullible fool. This is one of the many ways in which Star Trek is not entirely realistic. It is also one of the many reasons we are not bound for the stars — unless some weird physics turns up with a shortcut.
The problem is that the universe is, by any reasonable standards, far too large — “vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big”, as Douglas Adams put it. The nearest stars to Earth, the trio known as Alpha Centauri, are about 4.2 light years (25 trillion miles) away, and there are 100bn more stars in our galaxy (and 200bn more galaxies that we can see).
There are three possible reactions to this shocking state of affairs. One is anguish — “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me”, said Blaise Pascal. Then there is disdain — Peter Cook said he felt a great sense of his own significance when he looked at a starry sky. But some respond with something akin to irritation — “Let’s do it” is more or less what the Russian physicist and billionaire Yuri Milner said last week.
Milner, supported by Stephen Hawking, has put up $100m (£70m) to kickstart a $5bn-$10bn project — Breakthrough Starshot — that would accelerate lots of iPhone-sized objects in the direction of Alpha Centauri. Unlike humans, these objects should remain unharmed by the hyper-acceleration involved.
Everything about this project reeks of an ecstatic and mad grandeur. Lots of — perhaps all — billionaires go crazy. Some do in a really bad way: one co-founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, for example, turned himself into a Bond villain when he backed a plan to build floating cities in international waters where the cyber-elites could find fulfilment free of regulation (and probably get invaded by China). There is no poetry in that, but there is a great deal in this new symptom of Milner’s madness.
First there is the ticklish timing. It would take 20 years to build the system, at least another 20 years’ flight time and then 4.2 years more before the signal came back to Earth. Milner is 54, so he would need to live to 98 to see whether it had all worked — not impossible given the sort of healthcare he can afford with his $2.9bn fortune.
Then there is the astounding technology. It is clear Milner has made this announcement simply because we can do it. Probably.
The first thing required is a mighty bank of 10m lasers, each with a power output of 10kW. Then there would be pretty ordinary rockets that would deliver the little iPhones into space, where they would open their sails. The lasers would then be fired so as to converge into a single 100 gigawatt beam (equivalent to about 100 nuclear power stations) that would hit the wings and accelerate the iPhones. In two minutes they would be out of range of the lasers, but, all being well, by then they would be travelling at around 100m miles an hour.
The reasons this all now seems possible are developments in materials, electronics, miniaturisation and lasers. In particular, getting an object with enough power and instrumentation to send back information from the stars into a package the size of an iPhone is now feasible. Indeed, the marvellously named Zac Manchester at Harvard has raised more than £50,000 on Kickstarter to build satellites — KickSats he calls them — the size of postage stamps.
Furthermore, after the recent successes of unmanned missions within our solar system — the photos of Pluto, the delicate little craft that landed on a comet and so on — the idea of machine space exploration is now much more attractive than human. All those sci-fi space operas consistently failed to acknowledge the sheer inhospitability of space which makes keeping humans alive, well and sane for anything more than a few months a quite absurdly expensive task. Hurling smartphones at the stars is a much more efficient idea.
Back on Earth this story has an interesting ancestry. Private-sector space is, albeit slowly, booming on the back of the mad money being made from the internet. Most notably the Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, (worth $55bn) has Blue Origin, a project to develop new rocketry for manned flight. Elon Musk ($14bn), co-founder of PayPal, has SpaceX, which is already delivering payloads to the International Space Station. Earlier this month, after several attempts, it also pulled off the fantastically difficult feat of retrieving a first rocket stage by landing it vertically on a drone ship.
Musk is 44 — he was born a year before the last moon landing — Bezos is 52. Along with Milner these are technologically driven men for whom space can only have been a terrible disappointment. Government space failed to deliver. The euphoria of the beautiful Apollo missions was followed by the boredom and tragedies of the space shuttle era. A humiliating American dependence on Russian launchers ensued.
There is some faint irony in the fact that Milner is named after the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, whose single Earth orbit fired the US determination to get to the moon before the commies did, and April 12, the date of the Starshot announcement, was the 55th anniversary of that flight.
But there is more than disappointment at work here. There is a determination not to acknowledge the possibility of any human limitation in the face of those infinite spaces.
“The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars,” Stephen Hawking said at the press conference to announce the project, “but now we can transcend it . . . Today, we commit to this next great leap into the cosmos. Because we are human, and our nature is to fly.”
The tone — “great void’, “great leap”, “transcend”, “commit” — is not remotely scientific; it is, if anything, religious. Hawking is saying this project will go some way to fulfilling our destiny as creatures whose nature is to fly. It is way over the top and the idea that human nature includes the need to fly is bizarre. But then calls to fulfil our destiny, to submit to the demands of an imagined future, usually are, on closer examination, OTT and bizarre.
They are often dangerous as well, but not in this case. Milner’s madness has found fine and poetic expression in his plan to hyper-accelerate a flock of iPhones in the direction of Alpha Centauri. It is a much better use of money than yachts, babes, London property, Smythson notebooks — £240 for the Vahram Panama (sic) box set — dodgy financial instruments or even football clubs; and it is a much better deployment of middle-aged ego than Thiel’s lawless and stateless islands because, ultimately, a mad beauty is involved, both in the execution and the intention. And, though flying may not be an aspect of human nature, the pursuit of beauty most certainly is.