Daedalus: reconceptualising the Solar System environment

A recent study of cultural responses to a 1994 comet crash on Jupiter described the Earth as ‘part of a vast cosmic environment’, suggesting that ‘environmental history should embrace the whole Universe’, starting with the Solar System.48 This contributes to a growing body of work that conceptualises outer space as part of the wider human environment, both in the context of concerns about the exploitation of outer-space resources, as well as in understandings of the outer-space environment as a realm of conquest or defence.49 This environmental understanding also implicates ethical frameworks for conceptualising outer-space futures, such that ‘human engagement with outer space is also a question of environmental justice’, in cases such as the proliferation of orbital debris and the establishment of planetary protection protocols.50 The speculative nature of many outer-space projects, according to some researchers, does not negate the ‘lasting impact’ of these ethical frameworks in tangible ways on Earth.51 What such studies have established is that, instead of seeing the Earth as separate to and exclusive from its cosmic surroundings, our home planet is bound up intimately with the processes and materials of a wider, active Universe.

In many ways. Project Daedalus embraced this notion of the Solar System as part of the Earth’s environment, particularly in relation to the assembly of the Daedalus vehicle, the societal conditions under which it could be constructed, and the resources that would be required to set it on its interstellar journey. Hinting at some of these complexities, when asked about whether he actually believed that Daedalus would ever be built at some point in the future, Bob Parkinson responded in an understated fashion that ‘it wasn’t something you were going to do in a hurry’.52 Although the project’s ethos was to use existing technology wherever possible and only use reasonable extrapolation where necessary, this was still a design that would require enormous resource and engineering capabilities to realise. The Daedalus craft itself would be of substantial size, at 190 metres in length, with a total mass of 450 tonnes, most of which would consist of solid fuel pellets in the form of the radioactive isotopes deuterium and helium-3.5’ With such a great mass, the vehicle would be too large to be built and launched on Earth and would therefore need to be assembled in space, while its fuel resources alone would have to be drawn from across the interplanetary environment. Such considerations fed into the broader aspects of Project Daedalus, enrolling new imaginative geographies of the Solar System that envisaged widespread mining of extra-terrestrial resources, the establishment of advanced outer-space habitats, and an acknowledgement of humankind’s active role in colonising the planets.

As part of the final report of Project Daedalus, a series of illustrations by Bill Dillon outlined the construction and launch of the vehicle from the orbit of Jupiter’s moon Callisto. In one of these renderings (Fig.6.1), Daedalus takes shape in the upper part of the image, with its globular fuel containers and cone-shaped exhaust section having been put together, while crewed construction craft handle parts of the machinery. The free-floating perspective imagines the viewer of this scene tethered to one of these construction crafts, and a wheel-shaped space station serves as a base of operations, with a crescent-lit Jupiter providing background detail. While reminiscent of the earlier designs of Arthur C Clarke and associated illustrations of R A Smith (see Chapter 4), Dillon’s artwork imagines a spacefaring society in which a range of orbiting space habitats, satellites and vehicles form part of a sustained human presence in outer space. Rather than simply

Illustration by Bill Dillon showing the construction of the Daedalus vehicle

Figure 6.1 Illustration by Bill Dillon showing the construction of the Daedalus vehicle

Source Credit: Bill Dillon/British Interplanetary Society

Interstellar exploration 123 acting as an illustrative backdrop, these visions of a colonised Solar System of the future became an integral part of Project Daedalus.

The size and resource requirements of Daedalus meant that the design team had to envisage the project as part of a future society that would be capable, technologically, politically and economically, of sustaining a substantial presence in outer space, not only in orbit around the Earth but throughout the Solar System. Summarising this perspective. Bond and Martin explained:

It seems probable that a Solar System wide culture making use of all its resources would easily be wealthy enough to afford such an undertaking and presumably in order to have reached the stage of extensive interplanetary flight would also have achieved reasonable political stability, and an acceptance of this new environment. [...] We envisage Daedalus-type vehicles being built by a wealthy (compared to the present day) Solar System wide community, probably in the latter part of the 21st century.54

Such projections can be seen as part of a particular social and political framework in which futures were imagined in post-war Britain. Explaining this as a type of retro-futurism, Parkinson later described how, as his career in British science and technology developed, a sense of nostalgia for an earlier period of scientific and technological progress often acted as a motivation, while projects stalled and government support for hi-tech industries faltered. In other words, when Parkinson was ‘growing up as a teenager the future was a big thing’.55 In Project Daedalus, therefore, a sense remains that, through the speculative freedom offered by the BIS, the unrealised potential of the Space Age could be brought to life. Indeed, following the milestones of the first artificial satellite and the Moon landings, the prospect of a Solar-System-wide community by the end of the next century seemed logical, and acted as a spur to new ideas. Parkinson anticipated a phase of ‘interplanetary transition' in human society in which ‘not only the exploration but also the colonization of the Solar System will take place’, paving the way for a project such as Daedalus.56 Scholars in science and technology studies have noted ‘the importance of future-oriented discourse in technical practice’, particularly in spaceflight technology, outlining a sense in which the future is continuously re-imagined in technical designs.57 Plans for the future of space exploration within the BIS had long been associated with the colonisation of the Solar System, and this culture of anticipation was certainly an important aspect of Project Daedalus.

The recognition by the Daedalus team of the need for political stability and economic prosperity as part of a ‘Solar System wide culture’ further codifies the societal parameters in which Daedalus was envisioned. From a macro-economic perspective, Parkinson anticipated an advanced knowledge base across a wide range of technical and scientific sectors, as part ofa spacefaring society in which ‘men will not only learn the techniques, but also gather the resources for the larger jump to the stars’.58 As the Daedalus team started to develop the conceptual framework for a global spacefaring culture, it was made implicit that any future society in which Daedalus could exist would be characterised by an extractivist, resource-consuming economy. Studies in environmental geography have demonstrated how conceptualising outer space in terms of natural resource availability has been connected to Earthly discourses of political power and territorial control.59 This has included the visions of private companies that have proposed mining the Moon and other off-world spaces, while promoting narratives of resource depletion on Earth. Understanding Project Daedalus in such terms, therefore, means acknowledging the political and cultural perspectives from which it was conceptualised, and the lasting impact of such irnag-inaries in contemporary society.

Also significant in the early 1970s were genuine concerns about global energy provision, with the effects of the 1973 oil shock combining with what Bond and Martin described as the ‘hysteria which surrounds nuclear fission’, in a likely reference to the anti-nuclear movement.60 Responding to this discourse of global resource stress, the Daedalus team considered the ways in which the environmental resources of the Solar System might enable solutions to the world’s energy problems. As part of these considerations, it was assumed that, ‘in the next century helium-3 from Jupiter may already be returned to Earth on a routine basis for consumption in ground-based fusion reactors’.61 Nuclear fusion was, and still is, seen by some as a panacea for the future energy requirements of a technologically advanced population, while alleviating some of the fears about nuclear waste that had come to dominate public discourse on atomic power by the 1970s. Nuclear fusion using helium-3 was valued by the Daedalus team not only for these reasons, but also as the best option for powering the Daedalus vehicle itself. Following the principles of Project Orion, the propulsion mechanism for Daedalus would involve igniting a pellet stream of helium-3-deuterium isotopes with a high-powered electron beam, with the resultant small fusion explosions propelling the spacecraft in a series of consecutive pulses.62 The main problem with this design was that helium-3 is virtually non-existent on Earth, and would have to be acquired from elsewhere in the Solar System. In an oddly circuitous forecast, the Daedalus spacecraft would be reliant on extraction of helium-3 from across the Solar System, while the imagined society in which Daedalus could exist, would likely have developed extensive mining capabilities throughout the Solar System already.

Central to this set of circumstances was the concept of extracting helium-3 and deuterium isotopes in large quantities from the atmosphere of Jupiter.63 This problem was approached by Bob Parkinson through three possible solutions, with helium-3 being the most pressing concern, due to its relative scarcity. The first option was to manufacture the isotope through the breeding and radioactive decay of tritium, a process so environmentally

Interstellar exploration 125 damaging that banishing any such production plant to the Moon would have to be considered. The second option was to collect helium-3 from the solar wind, particles that are ejected from the Sun's corona to interplanetary space, but this was also deemed impractical. The preferred option was to collect both isotopes from the atmosphere of Jupiter, where they were believed to be abundant enough to supply the required 30,000 tonnes of helium-3 and 20,000 tonnes of deuterium. Here, adequate supplies could be harvested by an array of collecting balloons over a period of twenty years, and transported to a processing station orbiting one of Jupiter’s moons, ready to be loaded onto the Daedalus vehicle. These ‘aerostat factories’ would float within the Jovian atmosphere and process a combined total of 28 tonnes of gas per second.64 In imagining and seriously thinking through this process, Parkinson was able to put in place one of the pieces of the puzzle for Project Daedalus.

Running through Parkinson’s paper on propellant acquisition were detailed descriptions and analyses of the ‘geographies’ of the planet Jupiter itself. With a series of static balloons central to the isotope extraction plan, a detailed understanding of the Jovian atmosphere was required, along with an appreciation of factors including the gravitational effects of such a large planet, its rate of rotation and the constitution of its weather patterns. Here, NASA’s Pioneer programme was directly influential, with photographs of Jupiter in unprecedented detail being taken from the fly-pasts in 1973 and 1974 and released to the public. These encounters represented the very first exploratory missions of the Jovian system, and greatly enhanced human knowledge about the planet. This included details of the Jovian cloud systems, as well as data on the planet’s magnetosphere and radiation emissions, demonstrating that ‘spacecraft could explore Jupiter and survive the hazards of the Jovian environment’.65 This new knowledge was available to Parkinson at the time he was planning his contributions to Project Daedalus, and one of Pioneer H’s photographs of Jupiter illustrates his report, showing various weather patterns including the famous Red Spot. Parkinson interprets this image, suggesting that ‘the visible zones and belts circling the planet [...] are the product of Coriolis winds driven by vertical convection currents’, resulting in ‘wind speeds of up to 90 m/sec’, a hazard for any exploratory mission into Jupiter’s volatile atmosphere.66 Here, knowledge of terrestrial weather systems and broader cosmography were extrapolated in order to understand Jupiter’s complex nature, forming part of the essential knowledge base of Project Daedalus.

The final report of Project Daedalus consisted of twenty-one research papers, at least eight of which were devoted to understanding the outerspace environment in which Daedalus was imagined, including Barnard’s Star, the terrestrial Solar System and the spaces in-between. Even the more technical papers, including studies on propellant types, navigational techniques and spacecraft structure, had environmental, cultural and political aspects. Interpreting these dimensions demonstrates how Daedalus was byno means an isolated project, purely confined to engineering or technical specifications. In fact, it required a full deployment of imagined future scenarios for space exploration, and would be reliant on understanding the Solar System in environmental terms. This incorporated the latest knowledge about Jupiter’s atmospheric make-up and planetary environment, drawing from the achievements of the Pioneer missions that had been a strong influence on the project as a whole. It was perhaps the comprehensive nature of Project Daedalus that has led it to acquire an iconic status in the history of spaceflight design, being appreciated not just for its technical speculations, but also for imagining, in a somewhat hopeful sense, what could be achieved if humankind could work together in outer space, perhaps in opposition to the geo-strategic or neo-colonialist framework that arguably characterised earlier collaborative efforts, as recounted in Chapter 5. At the same time, however, the synthesis of environmental, economic and political understandings of the Solar System that Daedalus invoked were ultimately reflective of, and continued to inspire, certain ways of imagining outer space as a realm for human exploitation.

 
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