Interpreting Daedalus: cultural and scientific impressions

After the final report of Project Daedalus was published in 1978, the Daedalus committee was able to publicise its findings in various ways, reaching out to the wider cultural institutions of science, technology and outer space in Britain. Project Daedalus also stimulated significant work within the BIS on 'Interstellar Studies’, representing a new focus within the Society on understanding spaces beyond the Solar System. Some thirty years later, the BIS returned to the concept of an interstellar mission with Project Icarus, a study that has aimed to update the Daedalus concept, taking advantage of more recent scientific and technical knowledge. By interpreting these projects in the period during and after Project Daedalus was undertaken, a sense of its scientific and cultural impact can be ascertained.

One of the ways in which Project Daedalus connected with public audiences and interacted with diverse cultures of creative practice was through the medium of science television. Since the Second World War, the BBC in particular had been experimenting with new types of television broadcast with a popular science focus, including programmes such as The Sky at Night, Horizon and Tomorrow’s World. As Timothy Boon has shown, television ‘revolutionised the visual representation of science and vastly expanded its audience’, and with the establishment of BBC2 in 1964, science programming grew once again to incorporate new forms of expertise and cultivate audiences.67 Furthermore, researchers have shown how the science of outer space was enrolled as an important aspect of post-war broadcasting in Britain, both in terms of the technologies of production and transmission that it enabled, as well as in its capacity to appeal as a fundamentally visual science.68 With this expansion in science television came a raft of new

Interstellar exploration 127 broadcasting professionals specialising in science programming. One such person was Nigel Calder, who came to prominence as a television writer having previously worked as a writer and editor for New Scientist magazine. His 1978 three-part documentary series for BBC2. Spaceships of the Mind, covered topics including asteroid mining, the colonisation of space, and artificial intelligence, blending philosophical and scientific approaches to understanding the cosmos. The programme’s production notes stated that the series would ‘examine how recent discoveries in fundamental research may alter human ideas, values and aims’.69 Moreover, the programme’s title acted as a metaphor for ‘big ideas’ in science, aligning the concept of space exploration with notions of radical change in society. In an accompanying book, Calder stated:

Because we live at a special moment of scientific history our generation is able to launch spaceships of the mind that may serve as pathfinders for millions of years.70

Indeed, according to Calder ‘the most radical and hopeful ideas’ that emerged in the research for the series ‘clustered around the implications of spaceflight’.71 Some of these concepts were outlined over the course of the three programmes, including Princeton physicist Gerard K O'Neill’s designs for advanced space habitats and Freeman Dyson’s notion of a ‘swarm of orbiting platforms’ that ‘intercept nearly all the radiant energy of the parent star’, that became known as the Dyson Sphere.72 Alongside such iconic concepts of space colonisation was added Project Daedalus.

Featuring an interview with Alan Bond, the third part of Spaceships of the Mind, entitled ‘Seeding the Universe’, included a section on Project Daedalus. Here, Bond maintained the biological metaphor of the programme’s title, framing Daedalus as the first phase in the eventual colonisation of the Universe, with humankind ‘spreading something like mould on a wall’, echoing Wellsian notions of life in outer space (see Chapter 2).73 One innovative facet of the new science television programming was the incorporation of visual effects, including props, backdrops and lighting techniques. To support the narrative of the Daedalus mission, the producers of Spaceships of the Mind were able to draw on an amateur tradition of craft and visual representation that had long been a feature of the British Interplanetary Society. In the BIS, practices such as model-making and astronomical painting helped establish ‘the presence and legibility of space exploration and astronautics within many different contexts including science, politics and popular culture’.74 As such, models including a replica of the Daedalus ship were constructed for Spaceships of the Mind by designer Mat Irvine, who himself was a member of the BIS.75 Following discussions with Alan Bond, the only addition Irvine made to the design was the name ‘Daedalus’ on the side of the model, which was otherwise true to the designs of the Daedalus committee.

As a further part of the visual effects for Spaceships of the ¡Mind, ‘a twentyfoot long black backing, punctured with back-lit stars’ was used, with the Daedalus model suspended with invisible wiring.76 In addition, paintings by space artist David Hardy of ‘Saturn in close-up [and] Barnard’s Star system’ were deployed, as the imagined journey through the interstellar environment was brought to life.77 As part of this visual effects suite, the technique of front axial projection was used, whereby a still or moving background image is projected onto a reflective screen via an angled mirror, a technique that pre-figured contemporary ‘green screen’ technology for rendering background scenarios on film. Script notes for one sequence indicate Daedalus ‘turning and showing engine firing' to a score of Alan Hovhannes’ Odysseus Symphony™ The association of space exploration with classical music channels a sense of grandeur and the sublime, as can be witnessed in examples such as the introductory music to The Sky at Night, Jean Sibelius’ Pelleas et Melisande, from 1957, as well as Johan Strauss H’s The Blue Danube alongside other classical pieces in Kubrick and Clarke’s feature film 2001: A Space Odyssey, in 1968. In any case, the enrolment of music, visual art and craft in cultures of television production, alongside the technical and scientific designs of Project Daedalus, demonstrates how the imagined places of interstellar exploration were created through inter-disciplinary creative endeavour.

It was not just in the popular media that Project Daedalus stimulated new work. Within the BIS itself, a new special series of the BIS Journal on ‘Interstellar Studies’ was published from 1974. becoming known as the ‘red cover’ editions, running until 1991. During this period, three issues a year were devoted to this new aggregation of themes in space science, and, writing in an editorial to the first issue, Bond and Martin outlined the expected topics that would be explored:

[T]he possibilities for the existence of intelligence in the Universe, development of methods of contact via radio or other means, work on interstellar propulsion methods and spacecraft systems, development of the capabilities necessary to conduct scientific research at interstellar distances, the formation of planetary and stellar systems, their evolution and means of detecting them and biology and biochemistry concerned with the evolution of life.79

This manifesto effectively broadened the scale of space science from the interplanetary to the interstellar, anticipating a step-change in the scientific contemplation of time and space. A sample of the ‘Interstellar Studies’ papers reveals a combination of the themes set out by Bond and Martin, with some coalescence around the topics of extra-terrestrial life, the extra-Solar spaces of the Galaxy, and various concepts of interstellar flight, with contributions from BIS members in the UK. but also from researchers in the United States and continental Europe. As such, P Molton of the University

Interstellar exploration 129 of Maryland’s Chemistry Department pondered the possibilities of 'Non-Aqueous Biosystems’, and the potential of ammonia to act as the central element of life on other worlds, questioning the very chemical basis of life as we know it.80 Furthermore, as part of a special issue on 'World Ships’, Gregory L Matloff of City University New York outlined possibilities for the far-future migration of humankind to interstellar space, with the Sun having reached its 'White Dwarf' phase of stellar evolution.81 The special issue as a whole expanded on Leslie Shepherd’s prior concept of the ‘generation ship’ to envisage a wholesale exodus of humanity away from a dying Sun. Some papers chose to imagine the conditions of other worlds and star systems, with F D Seward of the University of California asking readers to ‘assume that the Earth is transported to a point inside the Crab Nebula’.82 From this point, Seward ‘compare[s] the environment there with the environment here’, describing the formidable magnetic and radiative conditions that would arise in the presence of the Crab Pulsar that lies at the centre of this Nebula.83 In the Interstellar Studies papers, researchers and readers were able to cast their scientific imaginations out into the cosmic environment in ways that had not been done before. The BIS acted as a conduit for information flowing between the United States and the UK around this topic, enhancing its journal’s reputation as one of the world’s pre-eminent astronautics publications. The influence of Project Daedalus thereby came to be felt by a generation of space enthusiasts.

In 1986, Bond and Martin re-visited Project Daedalus in a retrospective article. They claimed that ‘a reasonably convincing case had been made for the feasibility of interstellar probes’ and that ‘much grander interstellar missions were possible’.84 An important implication of this was that Fermi’s Paradox could be considered unresolved, and the question of whether or not life exists elsewhere in the Universe could remain open for further debate. Daedalus continues to influence activity within the BIS, and in the late 2000s, the Society established Project Icarus (‘Son of Daedalus’).85 This was to be a successor interstellar design study, using Daedalus as a starting point and one of the project’s early ventures was to commission a new Daedalus model to put on display in the BIS headquarters in South London (Fig. 6.2). Project Icarus has since morphed into the non-profit foundation Icarus Interstellar, an international consortium of researchers pursuing a range of projects, with the goal of realising interstellar travel by the year 2100. Alongside other initiatives such as NASA and DARPA’s ‘100 Year Starship’ grant project and the Tau Zero Foundation, Icarus Interstellar seeks to mobilise citizen scientists, professional researchers and space entrepreneurs to establish a new generation of individuals working towards the goal of interstellar flight. Its founder Andreas Tziolas has explained some of the motivations behind Project Icarus, which include ensuring the ‘survival of humankind’, alongside the desire to ‘push technological boundaries’, acknowledging also the influence of Project Daedalus.86 In bringing together networks within and outside of the BIS, Icarus represents a looser

Daedalus model (second engine stage) by Terry Regan, commissioned by the BIS in 2011

Figure 6.2 Daedalus model (second engine stage) by Terry Regan, commissioned by the BIS in 2011

Source Credit: British Interplanetary Society

and less-focussed design project than Daedalus, but nevertheless demonstrates the enduring fascination with interstellar flight, both in Britain and internationally, that Daedalus had magnified thirty years previously.

 
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