So where does the nostalgia mentioned earlier come in? Well, I find it poetic in the sense of history repeating itself; that the first technology which will probably allow us to really begin to meaningfully explore space is, at least in concept, so similar to the technology that allowed early human explorers to traverse the world’s oceans and discover new lands.
Set Sail and Prepare for Warp Speed!
Very soon NASA will be sending into space the largest solar sail in human history. I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of the solar sail. Not only because of its potential practical application for space exploration, but because it is such a wonderfully poetic bit of nostalgia.
Humanity has barely even stuck its toes into space, mainly because of the lack of true desire amongst the majority of the species, but even more so because of the staggering cost of undertaking any real effort to get anywhere worthwhile. Simply put, we can’t get enough stuff into space cost effectively, and couldn’t fill ships with enough fuel to get anywhere meaningful in any useful span of time.
Enter the solar sail. Where conventional sails employ kinetic energy provided by wind to propel seafaring vessels, solar sails make use of kinetic energy provided by photons coming off the sun to power space-faring ships without the need for any fuel. It’s literally free energy. In fact, a ship powered by a solar sail could travel at staggering speeds. While such technology still wouldn’t allow humans to get anywhere outside our solar system within any useful time frame in relation to the human lifespan, it could be used to explore the solar system to much greater effect than any technology we have today.
I know, it’s a tenuous comparison, but there is a simple beauty in it, at least to me. While I find most truths discovered about life and the universe through scientific means beautiful, there’s just something about solar sails that particularly captures my imagination.
Or maybe it’s just the possibility that we could be living in a Spelljammer universe sometime in our near future!