Friday, the final day of the conference, opened with a very high-powered panel discussion on current space policy and future directions for NASA. The participants were Dr. Paul McConnaughey of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Representative John Culberson of Texas, Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama (who represents Huntsville in Congress), and Lieutenant-General Steven Kwast, of the Air University at Alabama's Maxwell Air Force Base.
This panel definitely put things on a whole new level: the Workshop really is more than just a glorified science-fiction convention science programming track. Real decisions involving real money are influenced by what goes on here.
I expected to be mildly bored, but the speakers were anything but dull. Rep. Culberson engaged in what can only be described as "geeking out" about the prospect of life in the oceans of Europa and Enceladus — and he wasn't shy about mentioning that he managed to get a Europa probe enshrined as one of NASA's Congressionally-mandated goals.
Rep. Brooks also exceeded my expectations, with an encouragingly hard-nosed discussion of the problem of expanding debt — and how money devoted to debt service and entitlements isn't available for space exploration. Gen. Kwast took a very long historical view: if humanity does establish a presence off Earth or beyond the Solar System, do we want that spacefaring civilization to embody American values — or someone else's? He also pointed out that the cost of any activities (including military ones) in space has a high initial cost but low "opportunity cost" — in other words, doing anything in space is costly, but once you've got a presence there, doing additional things doesn't add much.
The frankness and actual knowledge on display were really encouraging. One gets so tired of hearing bumper-sticker slogans and sound-bites.
That was followed by a presentation by Dr. Phil Lubin about the limits of various means of interstellar travel. He broke down the methods mathematically, showing that for any kind of rapid (10 percent of lightspeed or better) interstellar travel, the only known methods of propulsion which are physically capable of accomplishing the task are antimatter rockets and beamed launch systems like the ones people have been discussing since Wednesday. He also reported very encouraging results in building a large-scale phased-array laser (a bunch of lasers spread over a large area which nevertheless remain in phase with each other).
Dr. Slava Turyshev of JPL discussed the possibility of using the mass of the Sun as a giant gravity lens telescope to obtain images of exoplanets with extremely high resolution and magnification. But Geoff Landis followed with a very skeptical analysis of all the obstacles such a gravity telescope would have to overcome.
And then . . .
Then I and some of the other SF writer guests snuck off to play hooky at the Marshall Space Flight Center, with a guided backstage tour. We visited the shop where they make focus elements for X-ray telescopes. It's a fascinating process involving sub-microscoping polishing of the mold, and then electroplating the actual mirror onto the mold. The same method is used to make focus elements for neutron microscopes, as well.
We got to see the International Space Station's Payload Control Center — the facility which acts as "Mission Control" for all the science and engineering experiments aboard the ISS. (I asked why that show is run from Huntsville rather than Houston, and the answer was that since many of the experiments are built at Marshall, it makes sense to put the controllers within shouting distance of the engineers and technicians.)
The group visited the historic test stand for the original Redstone rocket — the first American ballistic missile, which also launched America's first orbital satellite and powered the suborbital Mercury flights of Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom. A short drive away was the titanic test stand for the mighty Saturn V rocket, which was also used to test the Space Shuttle's engines. This is the gritty, concrete-and-rusty-steel part of the space program, built to withstand the incredible energies of large rocket motors.
From there we drove over to the fabricating facility and put on clean-suits to look at the stage connector sections being built there for the Space Launch System rocket, due to fly some time next year. We even got in a little autographing: we signed one of the panels! This was part of the upper stage, so my signature will orbit the Sun for decades.
I'd say that qualifies as one of the coolest things I've ever done, up there with fatherhood and last summer's eclipse.
The final stop was at the visitor center so we could have a look at the rocket engines on display, including the sole remaining NERVA nuclear rocket.
We got back to the Workshop in time for the final session of my museum exhibit working group. The much-reduced group managed to assemble a nice-looking report/proposal. This project is not going to end here . . . stay tuned for further developments.
After a dinner break I got up on stage with an awesome crew of science fiction legends. Toni Weisskopf, editor of Baen Books, was the moderator, and the panel included Gregory Benford, Geoff Landis, Allen Steele, and Larry Niven. One might feel a bit intimidated in such company, but thanks to my magnificent ego that didn't happen.
And that (except for some private socializing) was the end of the fifth Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop. I'm writing this before my flight home, so my conclusions about it will have to wait.
If you want to see cool stuff I've made up, buy my new ebook Monster Island Tales!