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Not just the stuff of dreams...
on January 26, 2005
It will be surprising to many people that the initial planning of humanity's first voyages to the stars has already begun. Those of us who grew up in the early days of the American space program, and whose vision of the future assumed that by the end of the twentieth century space flight would be commonplace and relatively easy, and who assumed that manned missions to Mars and further would be the next step within several years after the Apollo moon landings, became impatient with the slow and methodical pace of space exploration carried out in the immediate vicinity of Earth and by robotic probes sent about the Solar System- even though these missions were usually brilliantly planned and executed.
This book brings the welcome news and consolation that, even though the first interstellar mission of any kind is probably still at least several decades away, imaginative and intelligent people are already working on the theoretical basis for such future voyages, and some of the engineering problems are being addressed. So at least we don't have to wait until the rest of the solar system has been explored to get an idea of how the next colossal task will be approached. Much of this work is being done by various research agencies associated with NASA, by the European Space Agency, and even by academics and assorted dreamers.
Paul Gilster does an excellent job of explaining the current state of the planning for adventures to the closest stars, providing lucid descriptions of the work even now being done on such amazing concepts as laser-powered sails and antimatter drives. I have read a fair number of the popular scientific works intended to introduce laymen to difficult subjects (string theory, hyperinflation, etc.), and this volume is at least as clear and readable as anything I have seen by Allan Guth or Brian Greene. Besides being a primer, however, Centauri Dreams is also a fine piece of investigative reporting, since the author discusses the people who are doing this imaginative work and places their endeavors within an institutional context to show some of the bureaucratic and political hurdles that must be overcome.
Mr. Gilster also relates interstellar planning to the development of notions of interstellar travel within science fiction, showing how fictional (and often very much misguided) thought has influenced scientific thought.
Centauri Dreams is an exciting and important read. Highly recommended.