As Marcia Smith noted in a Twitter post, Rep John Culberson, R-Texas took to the floor of the House and touted a provision of the bill that will fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year that encourages NASA to develop propulsion technology for interstellar flight. Culberson would like an expedition to be launched to #Alpha Centauri in 2069, the hundredth anniversary of the first moon mission of Apollo 11.

The provision lists a number of possible propulsion technologies including fusion, anti-matter, solar sails, and even Bussard ramjets. It did not include the propellant-less EmDrive or the classic Star Trek-style warp drive, both of which have been studied at the Eagleworks lab at the Johnson Spaceflight Center south of Houston.


The United States Congress has become notorious for its tendency toward short-term thinking. So it is somewhat surprising that a provision in a spending bill references a space mission that is not scheduled to take place for another 52 years. For some perspective, 52 years ago from this writing would bring us back to 1965 when the Gemini program was first started, four years before the first lunar landing.

A ramped up program to develop advanced propulsion technologies would likely gain dividends long before the first starship departs from Earth. Currently, a spacecraft takes any time from six months to a year to get to Mars. The Outer Planets are a voyage of many years using conventional rockets and gravity assist maneuvers. A fusion drive or an EmDrive could make Mars a journey of a few weeks and bring Jupiter and Saturn to within a year or two flight time.


Right now Culberson’s provision does not have any dedicated funding attached to it. NASA would fund such an effort out of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. Presumably, at some point, some of the more promising technologies would get the dedicated funding they would need to become spaceflight-worthy.

A group of scientists and Internet entrepreneurs has started something called the Breakthrough Initiative. The first project for the initiative is called StarShot. The project envisions a swarm of nanoprobes attached to light sails. The probes would be accelerated to a significant fraction of the speed of light so that they would fly by Alpha Centauri 20 years after being launched and would return data about, among other things, possible planets that orbit the nearest star system to Earth.

Culberson has indeed become the rare space visionary in Congress. He has been the moving force behind the exploration of Europa, now funded and scheduled for launch in the 2020s. But the interstellar propulsion technology initiative proves the adage that in space there are always more world to conquer.