Why interstellar space travel may never happen in our lifetime

Every time you turn around it seems like scientists are finding another exoplanet.

And every time I read about one of these discoveries I dream of visiting a world around another star. I’m not alone. There’s a group called the 100 Year Starship that wants to develop the technology needed to send humans to another star during the next century.

It’s not a completely cracked idea. The group was created in 2011 with a half million dollar grant from NASA and DARPA, the Department of Defense’s agency for advanced research.

The first step is to understand how monumentally difficult it would be to go to another star.

You may remember that Voyager 1, that plucky little spacecraft launched back in 1977, recently made headlines by becoming the first human machine to leave the solar system.

After nearly 40 years.

Now imagine that Orlando represents our solar system, and Los Angeles represents the Alpha Centauri system, the very closest star system to Earth. Continuing with our analogy, if Voyager were driving from Orlando to Los Angeles, it is 1 mile into its journey.

So we’ve got to find technologies that go radically faster than ones we have now. The fastest spacecraft we’ve built are two probes sent to the Sun, the Helios probes, that traveled 157,000 miles per hour. At that speed it would take these spacecraft about 17,000 years to reach the nearest star.

To cross such great distances perhaps we’ll have generational star ships, in which the great-grand kids of the adults who first left Earth will land on a distant world. Or maybe we’ll use cryogenics and leave the driving to robots. Or maybe we’ll figure out a way to make warp drive work.

However we do it, don’t bet against humanity. In 1901 H.G. Wells wrote a science fiction book about life on the moon — he envisioned a civilization of insect-like aliens. Less than seven decades later humans went to the moon. We didn’t find aliens, or cheese.

But we did find a way.

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