Packing Your Bags for Interstellar Travel

Written by: Ryan Hall

“The Earth is the cradle of the mind—but one cannot eternally live in a cradle.” —Tsiolkovsky

While the Russian rocket scientist quoted above may not have lived long enough to witness humans leaving Earth for space, I imagine he would be quite pleased to know not only how far we have come but also just how close we are to finally being able to go where we once only dreamed. 

Easily some of the most captivating events in Los Angeles during the past several years have been the wildly popular “science salons” hosted by The Science & Entertainment Exchange. Such was the case at one of its most recent events at the Next Door Lounge on February 10, where some of the most creative minds in entertainment were treated to yet another mind-blowing night of creative inspiration.

The password at the door was “Imagined Futures” so it was only fitting that the main topic of discussion throughout the evening dealt with the seemingly impossible task of how we might one day achieve interstellar travel. Much like other Exchange events, those in attendance carry with them an infectious optimism about the future. Most do not believe in the phrase “if we can.” Rather, they subscribe to the mindset of “when we will.”

Moderated by Jon Spaihts, who is easily found in the top echelon of Hollywood’s elite screenwriters, the night began by discussing our demands as humans during interstellar travel. While the physical toll of such a grueling journey has its own challenges, Spaihts also mentioned our need to create new words for the things we will see or encounter. Who knows what the universe will hold along the way so we must be prepared, both physically and communicatively, if we hope to prosper.

Randii R. Wessen, a scientist for JPL who has worked on planetary missions including the Mars rovers, then spoke about the massive size of our universe and the importance of NASA. Wessen reminded the room that while NASA may play many important roles in our society, perhaps there is no greater one than its mission to ensure our species’ survival if we one day need to leave Earth … for good.

The night also featured two other fantastic guest speakers. Alvin Yew, a program manager for NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (or the DARPA for NASA, as he describes it) and Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides, a founding astronaut on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, both elaborated on the challenges presented and the unprecedented steps being taken by scientists around the world to make sure our upcoming interstellar missions are successful. 

After an entertaining and informative Q&A, most of those in attendance hung around to keep the conversations going. This seems to be the case at every Exchange event, where creative minds are given tools to fuel their ideas or inspire new ones. The night may have begun with an imagined future of what interstellar travel might one day look like but, as the night ended and we walked outside, I could not help but notice a few folks looking up to the bright stars in the sky, thinking to themselves not “if” but “when.”

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.