When Will We Become Interstellar?

Dr. Ian O’Neill is one of the coolest scientists we know, so we sat him down at the YouTube spaces and asked him a real zinger – when will we humans become an interstellar race, like the ones we’re used to seeing on Star Trek? Here’s what he had to say to us!

“I’m Dr. Ian O’Neill. I work for Discovery News – I’m their space producer. My background is as a scientist – I’m a solar physicist. I got my PhD in Coronal physics.

“I think it is possible for humans to become an interstellar race. I think it’s possible, but not within my lifetime, not the next hundred years without some really transformative technologies in between. The key one on the International Space Station right now we’re testing life support systems, and doing phenomenally well. But the International Space Station is close to earth, so if something breaks down, you can conceivably just hop down and bring something back up, although it is conceivable more complicated than that. As for putting human colonies on other planets, yeah, that’s hard, but you’ve got a gravitational well and you’ve got a base there, you assume that they’ve got some sort of infrastructure working.”

“But if you put everybody onto a space ship and send them out into interstellar space, there is no infrastructure there, no connection to Earth, especially when the years go by and the travel time of messages starts getting very long because of course we’re talking about light-years. It could conceivably take several years for one message to get from A to B, so you’ve got the relativistic issues there as well.”

“And certainly, without some massive breakthroughs in propulsion technology, I don’t think that humans are going to become the Star Trek race we want to be, unless we develop the warp drive. That would be fantastic – then we’ll be able to travel around the galaxy at any speed we like. We can even travel faster than the speed of light, with the warp drive. So, ideally, it would be great to create the warp drive.”

“But within our current understanding of technology and where it is going, the iterative steps that we hope make between that and sending a probe to another star, I just don’t see us becoming that space-faring race, not within the next hundred years, not perhaps within the next thousand years. But again, these are timescales that I can’t even fathom within my small existence. We’re talking about a galaxy that’s billions of years old – we’re talking about missions that could conceivable take hundreds of years to get to the nearest group of stars. I think we need to start changing the way we think, and science fiction helps – it helps with the warp drive and all that – it kind of pushes us in ways that we wouldn’t understand. But in realistic terms, at least a hundred years before that even becomes a possibility.”

You can circle Dr. Ian O’Neill on G+, follow him on Twitter as @astroengine, read his website here and watch his channel here on YouTube.

11 Replies to “When Will We Become Interstellar?”

  1. I think this guy is way too pessimistic.

    We already have the propulsion technology to achieve 5% light speed or so. We just don’t have the political will to investigate it further. Eventually we will have to get over the stigma that all nuclear technology is bad. Anything less than nuclear or antimatter has too little energy density for high speed spaceflight.

    Check out this video of testing for Project Orion. They used conventional bombs in place of nuclear bombs for the testing, but the concept was proven to work. Even the pusher plate being destroyed by a nuclear blast was solved by simply spraying a thin coating of oil over the metal plate between blasts which acted as an ablative surface. The space nuclear test ban treaty killed this project.

    1. Hi Dan, the key thing here is that I say that interstellar travel IS possible. But realistically, before we start sending humans into interstellar space, we need some huge breakthroughs in propulsion and life support tech. I pick an arbitrary number — 100 years — before that tech comes about. But transformative technologies tend to take us by surprise, so it could happen before that.

      Robotic missions on the other hand — we could do that NOW. Project Orion-like propulsion would do very nicely (although I’d argue the key constraint with that concept is materials engineering). I don’t think it’s feasible, in its current form, for human space travel however.

      This article I wrote when I was covering the 100 Year Star Ship symposium in Houston summarizes my viewpoint on the subject pretty well: http://news.discovery.com/space/history-of-space/interstellar-travel-is-hard-dont-bother-120913.htm

  2. I recommend everyone to look at talks given at the Starship Century Congress in august 2013 for a current indepth discussion of the topic:


    The conclusion about propulsion is that every potential technology needs at least one visit from the Tooth Fairy before it makes interstellar travel possible. Nuclear thermal engines are not good enough for interstellar. It isn’t even possible for an unmanned science probe to reach the nearest star within this century! And it is the enthusiasts who conclude that.

    Even with propulsion, this is a very serious topic to consider:

    How could we possibly reconstruct, or even uniformly sample, the biotope of Earth? It could collaps partially and reform into something which is not habitable för humans. Interstellar colonization includes terraforming, and people only talk about gases, but it’s the microbial world which is the trick.

    1. Nuclear thermal is not the same as nuclear pulse propulsion. They were seriously considering using nuclear pulse over 50 years ago. Since it involves nuclear bombs and not just nuclear reactors, it has been off the table but it is the easiest way to reach relativistic speeds (which is why it was studied back in the 50’s and early 60’s). I consider us interstellar when one of our probes can reach a nearby star thereby giving us a physical presence..the people can come along later.

      1. Of course not. Nuclear thermal I consider to be current technology and it’d be great inside the solar system, but it is not enough for bringing humans to other stars. And hardly even for a science probe to reach a star this century.

        I don’t think that nuclear pulse propulsion was ever a serious suggestion. It was rather just a gimmick to show that a spaceship could theoretically achieve a percent fraction of the speed of light without exotic physics. Nuclear weapons are prohibitively expensive and Orion would need many times all nukes in the world as fuel.

        Here are the interstellar space race leaders (to be), who make do with what is here and now:

        It will of course run out of power before it leaves the solar system. And be beyond radio communication anyway soon after. And all electronics destroyed by cosmic rays during the centruries to follow. But they will be the first on the interstellar way!

  3. Do you have too much time on your hands because you just finished designing and testing a new space propulsion system that will help launch your white behind to Mars or are you just talking out of it for no reason?

  4. You don’t need warp drive to cross the galaxy in 10 minutes, you could do that at 99.9999999…. etc per cent light speed. It’s just that billions of years may pass by on Earth while you’re away.
    But most likely we are going to explore the galaxy very, very slowly. Generational crews with 3d printers, who get technology upgrade advice from Earth as they go, seems the most likely way forward.
    I agree with Ian that we aren’t going anywhere much without better propulsion technologies. Get your kids addicted to Star Trek and make them study maths, physics and engineering. Now would be a good time 🙂

  5. Why do we need to put human colonies on other planets in order to be interstellar?
    Assuming some form of space-self-sustainability will be required anyway in order to make interstellar travel possible, we might as well abandon the whole goal of “colonizing exosolar planets” – which requires much more than just self-sustainability in space – and simply live in space forever. Then getting to those planets will be just a nice byproduct of naturally expanding through space anyway, but it won’t be the goal, and the paradigm of “missions that could take hundreds of years” will no longer be required: there will be no “missions”, just natural expansion.

  6. Reality check, it was the anti-science Right Wing religious zealots in Congress that had a hand in reducing NASA’s budget. Assign blame where it belongs please.

    1. Actually the Obama administration cut NASA’s space science budget. What they have done right is continue the seed funding for commercial space (SpaceX, et. al.). Too bad they can’t get SLS/Orion pork programs cut with some of the budget restored to space science.

  7. Just like we made it from horse carts to the spacecrafts we will surely one day conquer this barrier too. The only question is the timeframe. From horse carts to cars took a thousand years, but from car to space craft took a matter of few decades. So we just cant say.

Comments are closed.