“We’re in an era today where we have set our sights too low. We’ve got diminished expectations,” Les Johnson told me at EVE Vegas, where he was a featured speaker on the future of space travel.
Johnson is a science fiction author, physicist, and Deputy Manager at NASA’s Advanced Concepts Office. He is in the business of blue-sky thinking about how humanity might leave blue skies behind for interplanetary and interstellar travel. Given the current state of the US space program, and the poor prospects for any major manned missions to anywhere beyond orbit in the near future, you might expect Johnson to be pessimistic.
But he remains enthusiastic about the future, because knows that many of our current limitations are matters of choice, not potential. While interstellar travel remains far beyond our reach, Johnson’s pointed out that there are tons of fascinating possibilities almost within reach.
“Going to the stars is great. We want to think about it. But first we have to become masters of our own solar system. And there is no reason we can’t do that. It’s just that we are choosing not to.”
“What am I doing here? Well, first, they invited me!” Johnson told me with a laugh. He is a scientist straight from central casting, brimful of excitement and ideas that range from the practical to the seemingly-outlandish. He was attending EVE Vegas not as a NASA official, but as a sci-fi author and thinker. He frankly admitted he had no idea about EVE, and was a little intimidated by the level of discussion at the panels he attended. But that doesn’t mean he thinks communities like EVE’s are trivial. Far from it.
“For me, I was inspired by Star Trek. And by reading science fiction,” he said. “To get people motivated to go into science today, it’s games like EVE. I think the value of stuff like this is it’s PR, it gets people excited about space, but the ultimate value is maybe the people it inspires to study science and math.”
It doesn’t matter that the kind of space travel we’ll see in our lifetimes, or the lifetimes of our grandchildren’s generation, will look nothing like EVE’s vision of easy, fast interstellar travel. “People at conventions like this are the biggest cheerleaders for space exploration that are out there. Even though it might be disillusioning, as people see we won’t have these superhighways to the stars, they still cheer what we do.”
The obstacles to interstellar travel are tremendous. As Johnson puts it, the speed of light “appears to be a speed limit” and getting anything large going anywhere near that fast requires an absurd amount of energy. Energy on the order, he said, of the entire planet’s collective output. But he doesn’t think that’s cause to be discouraged.
“We can’t forget that our solar system is a big place, and with technologies I can envision us building in the next 100 years, we will potentially have trips to Mars in six months or less. That’s not too bad! A couple days to the moon? Mine the near-Earth asteroids? We can have a pretty robust interplanetary civilization within the next 100 years, if we choose to do that. And I choose those words carefully because it will be a choice. It’s not science fiction. We can do this. We just have to decide that it’s worth doing.”
The biggest problem Johnson sees is what he calls the corporate mindset that has come to dominate the terms of discussion around science and exploration funding. It is a mindset that runs directly contrary to what created a lot of the sustained innovation and discovery over the course of the 20th Century.
“During World War II and even after, in the United States there was a man named Vannevar Bush. He architected the whole collaboration between fundamental research and government funding. Where there were grants from NASA, National Science Foundation, the Dept. of Energy. Anybody who had an idea that was going to answer just a scientific question — it didn’t matter if it had economic returns — they funded it,” he said. “And from that, we got the computer revolution, we got lasers, we got a whole host of things that came from scientists and engineers just advancing human knowledge.
“Then we took this corporate mentality — no offense to corporations, I believe in the free enterprise system — but in that system, next quarter is what matters. Next year. And your research has to turn a product back within a year. That’s what started unravelling. Because you don’t know when fundamental research is going to pay off. But you won’t get the big breakthroughs with applied research. You get incremental improvements, you don’t get the thing that takes you to the next level. ...If you have to go into the lab and tell why a more precise measurement is going to lead to computers in 1940, it’s not going to happen. But they funded these people because they were scientifically invested.”