Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop 2013 “…wait, you want to do what?”

Mike Mongo presenting at Les Johnson's Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop 2013

Presenting at Les Johnson’s Tennessee Valley Workshop 2013 (TVIW13) was fantastic. And it was scary. Due to some issues with the airline I flew on, it took 20 hours to fly from Key West to Huntsville. (Next time, I’m sticking with American.) I left Key West International at 5pm Saturday and arrived via Charlotte 2pm Sunday. Because of my the delays I had a few hours sleep in-between. Sunday night I attended the opening mixer—and caught a lift back to the hotel with Steven Covey of Deep Space Industries and his lovely wife Doris—but went up to my room and crashed.

The next day which started at 6am I was still feeling groggy but the spirit of the occasion lifted me up as soon as the first speaker—keynote speaker veteran astronaut Jan Davis—took the podium. Here was a room filled with seriously dedicated proponents of space travel all with one goal on our collective minds: Interstellar travel.

This is also where I caught up in the moment, much to the detriment of proper human rest. In my sleep-deprive- but-inspired state, I soaked up each new speaker’s presentation and became suddenly more aware of a need to address what I saw as not the elephant but the starship in the room. After all, we were talking about interstellar travel.

I know. I know. Most people thoughts tend towards, “Interstellar travel? What’s that?”

Inter-stellar travel. It’s traveling to another star. Excuse me I mean traveling to another star. As in, a sun. You know, the big yellow thing in the sky every day? Yes, traveling to another one of those. Did you know there are other suns? Well, there are. They are called stars.

And the nearest other star is 4.3 light years away from us. What’s a light year? Good question.

One light year is the distance light can travel in one year. How far is that? Well to answer that question you have to know fast light travels.

And light travels at 186,000 miles per second. In one year light can travel an extremely long distance: 5,865,696,000,000 miles. At this point the fastest human-made object is Helios II space probe which traveling to the sun built up speeds of 186 miles per second, or approximately 1/1000 of the speed of light.

The nearest star is 4.3 light years away, give or take. That’s 5,865,696,000,000 miles x 4.3 …or 25,277,000,000,000 miles (rounded to nearest billion miles).

So the farthest humankind has been so far is 11,000,000,000 (billion) miles from earth. Or, approximately 1/2300 of the distance to the nearest star, Centauri B.

And that’s what was being discussed at TVIW13, got it?

Traveling almost incomprehensible distances at super-extraordinary speeds. (To get to Centauri B it is popularly agreed upon that 1/10th the speed of light with the right space craft is doable/acceptable/necessary. That’s 18,600 miles-per-second, or 1000 times faster than anything we/us humans have moved so far.)

Most people are completely uninformed on this subject (beyond Star Wars/Star Trek). It’s just too fantastic or to impossible seeming. Yet at TVIW13 here were top scientific minds, physicists & engineers, astronomers, mathematicians, educators, even SETI researchers and computer hackers, who all are working to pragmatically develop a plan to connect our solar system with another solar system.

We have a solar system, let’s call it Sol. Think of creating a connection between Sol and Alpha Centauri. Two solar systems with a common earth. But what if there were another earth?

And that is where it gets interesting. In Sol (our solar system) there is one earth. That’s pretty much for certain as certain gets. Presently there is nowhere else in solar system Sol that is anywhere near as hospitable and livable as earth. However, another star means the possibility of another earth…

another earth. Maybe one without humans and open to being utilized by us humans from this planet earth. Another earth with more resources, food, and water. And weird gravity, and different colored sun, etc.

For a small but growing portion of earth’s population, this is a very important idea. For some of us, it taps into a private sense of purpose for earthling humankind. For others, it is about surviving or migrating. For some of us, perhaps a great many of us, the stars are our inevitable destiny. SO the group discussing interstellar accomplishments at TVIW13 are this movements—from earth to the stars—”activists”.

If it seems awkward or premature to describe the desire to reach another star system (besides our own) as a movement, or to describe the proponents of this objective as activists, I would point out that the reason for this is because big, new ideas always seem outlandish …at first. Explorers crossing great lands, navigators crossing great waters, space people crossing great expanses, what is the difference? In fact, they all share one similarity and it is all great voyages are always scoffed at, frowned upon, and derided when first proposed.

The common sense notion to stay put and do not change seems as human default thinking when presented with any bold or new ideas. Yet this reflex reaction likewise seems immediately challenged by another default cognitive setting: “Go see! Go touch!”

The former is self-preservation. The latter, curiosity. Both are as natural as human beings.

So that is what’s what about interstellar travel.

And here I was in a room full of peer minds whose natural reaction nearly all leaned towards the “go see go touch” response. If anything, TVIW is full of space enthusiasts. Granted, everyone in the room has a different (yet informed) approach to how this can be accomplished but nonetheless everyone at Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop 2013 shares that one thing in common: Everyone is for humankind’s going to another star.

And even in my sleep-hungry state, as I listened to the speakers from day 1 of the workshop an observation within me continued to build and gain strength. As it was, each speaker was addressing interstellar travel as if it were us/we who would be building the starship.

Now, one thing I know about that. Given our current state and direction of technological (im)maturity, it is for certain not our generation’s job to build a starship. Our generation’s job—or responsibility—is to nurture the building of a starship in the next generation. Our generation’s job is to do the research and science to enable the next generation to build a starship. Or, as we put it at FarMaker, the Icarus Interstellar “skunkworks” team I have been working on with Dr Andreas Tziolas and Luke Blaize:


And that’s the job of the next generation.

Our generation’s job is to inspire them to BUILD A STAR SHIP—while working to discover, uncover, reveal, make, discover, produce, and make the tools needed to do it. Our generation’s job is to instill  the objective—BUILD A STAR SHIP—into the up-and-coming generation.

And so with all that insight in my head after an brilliant first day of workshop (as well as dinner with a big group of Icarii that night in Huntsville’s gaslamp district) I went back to my hotel room in the evening and wrote almost an entirely new presentation AND built a slide show for it.

I stayed up until 3am finishing my new presentation, and got up at 7am to deliver it at 9am. It was a raw and genuine state I was in when I delivered my presentation.

It was something that I would only recommend if you have extreme confidence in your message. (Confidence in your self won’t hurt but if your message is true it goes a long way towards inspiring confidence.)

What I spoke about was Messaging, Audacity, Timelines and Deliverables towards Interstellar Accomplishments. It is the same presentation title I was scheduled to deliver. Only now instead of merely outlining history, present and future of my own perceptions, I delivered my TVIW presentation as if an introduction to a manifesto.

Besides explaining the above and defining the timeline of our role, and our children’s role—and also their children’s role—I introduced the method of messaging by which interstellar accomplishments are fostered, as well as an outline of the deliverables or fruits of having audacious messaging and deliverables.

By the grace of God (and Google) my presentation was by all indications a rousing success. These were the right ideas delivered before the right ears in the right room at the right time. (Though having BUILD A STARSHIP wristbands emblazoned with “Huntsville 2013” on the reverse side didn’t hurt, either.) To hear the same ideas referenced picked up and referenced throughout the conference was all the affirmation I needed. But to have one of the greatest and best-informed proponents of space exploration and interstellar travel, Paul Gilster of Icarus Interstellar, Centauri Dreams and Tau Zero Foundation, dedicate nearly an entire blog post to these very ideas made me feel more than affirmation: It instilled me with a sense of belonging, and of truth in words.

Interstellar travel is the goal we must set our sights on because those stars out there around us are places. It’s like being on an island with another island within sight but beyond reach—before the invention of rafts or boats. Rafts and boats do come. We do go visit the other island. Only time will tell whether it is inhabited or not. Only time will tell if it is welcoming or not. But from our exclusively human perspective, there is only one way to find out.

And that is to go and visit. The stars await.

Here is my presentation from Les Johnson’s Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop.
BUILD A STAR SHIP: 100 Year Starship & the application of
Messaging, Audacity, Timelines and Deliverables
for Interstellar Accomplishments

[text version]

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