Manned space travel, like the manned fighter plane, is a great logic puzzle: Even if you concede that the government should be running this business, the business model makes no sense. The arguments for an all-robot space fleet keep piling up, in low earth orbit and beyond: While the Jet Propulsion Laboratory uses its fraction of NASA's budget to deliver lovable Mars rovers, scientific surprises from the moons of Saturn and other breakthroughs, the Space Shuttle program is winding down with very little to show for all the effort.
Now the UK writer Charlie Stross of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies says even the venerable idea of the Starship was just a beautiful dream from the days of classic rock. In a heavily italicized post, Stross argues that "the entire conceptual framework of the starship is a dangerously misleading dead-end, and that what we need is a new framework for thinking about interstellar travel." His proposal for a solar-sail type "Starwisp," Stross says, will "look more like a DVD balanced on a microwave beam" than the Millennium Falcon:
If anything, it's going to resemble a seed pod for a different kind of life, and on arrival it's going to hatch and grow into a tree, or a forest, or a manufacturing-industrial complex. Finally, long after arrival, it might have sufficient resources to divert from homeostasis and growth to construct a biosphere, open communications with home, and prepare to download digitized colonists — if the whole uploading concept doesn't prove to be chimerical, and if there's something to be done with the serialized primate core-dumps at the other end.
That's a lot of ifs there, buddy! I don't know from serialized primate core-dumps, and if you're having trouble in that area I suggest bran, nature's broom. But Stross' case takes in what Texas and Florida politicians rarely want to mention: that all space destinations are far away. Hollywood doesn't like that either. The only solar-sail-type vehicle I know of in a movie is Christopher Lee's in one of the later Star Wars movies -- and that one makes a shape that (like so much in the Star Wars universe) wouldn't occur in a vacuum. (In his novel Karoo, the screenwriter Steve Tesich has the hero, a soulless script doctor, waste time dreaming of an unfilmable solar-sail movie.)
In a popular rebuttal to Stross in the comment thread, the Centennial State's own Joe Strout (Joe Strout? Charlie Stross? One man or two?) predicts the passage to Alpha Centauri's gravity well will occur over generations of deeper-space settlement, with inhabitants of the outer reaches of the Oort Cloud arriving first. That has lunchpail appeal, but there is a good probability the whole human race would have died of boredom before reaching such a stage. Also isn't the Oort Cloud in motion relative to Centauri, so that settlers there would be just as likely to be living on the far side of the Sun from the system? And don't you have to travel much farther to get to a star that shows any promise of being interesting?
Why is it hard to give up the goofy idea that space exploration will proceed in a logical line from the Age of Discovery? This opening-credit sequence, which combines a stirring montage with what may be the worst song of all time, helps show the appeal:
For an entertaining look at how a highly ambitious unmanned project gets pulled off in the expensive-yet-measly economy of government space exploration, you can do no better than Steve Squyres' book Roving Mars.