On April 12, 1961, at 06:07 UT, the first manned spaceflight was launched. The Vostok 1 had one passenger, an astronaut by the name of Yuri Gagarin, and it orbited the earth once before landing 280 km to the west of its takeoff point. Gagarin ejected from the spaceship about 7km above the ground, floating to the earth in a parachute. The entire trip took a little more than an hour. It was an important milestone in the mission to fly among the stars.
Another milestone was reached eight years later, on July 20, 1969, the iconic moon landing. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first people to ever set foot on the moon. It was a huge, huge event, and it inspired thousands.
In 2000, the ISS (International Space Station) was created in orbit, with the combined minds and funding of five different organizations: NASA, Rosokmos, JAXA, ESA, and CSA. (The US, Russia, Japan, Europe, and China’s space organizations.)
So far only Russia, the US, and China have sent manned flights into space, but technology and funding increases by the day.
However, there are a ton of problems in the quest for the stars. One of them is working up enough speed to cover unimaginable distances in a relatively short amount of time. Another is finding the energy to power something that big and fast. Funding is low, because there is no concrete material value beyond that of science, and there are a thousand problems with the practical side of starships, like how to get food and water in space, or what shape it should be in order to not shake itself apart, or how to keep the crew in shape and healthy and entertained for the duration of the trip.
Currently, there are several projects aiming to fix some of those problems.
For instance, there’s a program that started in 2011, called the 100 Year Starship. Its goal is to have a working starship that can feasibly travel to the closest star within a hundred years. People submit schematics and ideas and solutions for problems, and they’re databased and experimented with. Basically, it’s an enormous think tank. They already have dozens of submissions, and they recently received a $15,000 grant to start with.
Nasa’s working on powering ships with antimatter, by crashing it into matter, which annihilates it and turns it into pure energy. Ten milligrams of antimatter, about a hundredth the weight of an M&M, has a far higher lsp (The mpg of rocketry, basically, how long a pound of fuel can emit a pound of force) than a hundred pounds of nuclear fuel, and doesn’t leave behind any radioactive waste. However, antimatter is extremely difficult to create, and can only be contained in a magnetic field, because if it touches matter it will explode. It also emits high levels of gamma, so we probably won’t have any antimatter ships for another couple decades at least.
They’re also working on the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, or Orion MPCV, which is a deep space capsule that will eventually take humans to Mars or further. Testing will start in 2014, and they hope to have a functional ship by 2021.
There are a thousand wild possibilities for starships in the future, over a wide spectrum of scientific theories, from warp drives to black hole drives, from generation ships to wormholes.
Warp drives are based off warping the space/time continuum, elongating it behind the ship and shortening it in front, so that it can cover unimaginable distances in a short amount of time. However, something like that would take an enormous amount of energy that we don’t know how to produce yet, and anyway we haven’t figured out exactly how to warp the space/time continuum yet. A black hole drive runs off the fact that if a black hole is small enough, instead of, say, sucking in the Earth, it will rapidly metabolize its mass into energy. A lot of energy. Sadly, it would take a huge, super scaled up particle accelerator in space to create a black hole the right size, which would be very expensive and not practical for a theoretical engine.
A generation ship assumes that we cannot move at vast speeds, and instead turns the entire spaceship into a small, moving planet, where humans live and reproduce and die all on the same starship, for tens to hundreds of generations, until it reaches its destination. The theory of traveling through wormholes is that a hole in time and space, or “mouth” is connected to another “mouth” through a tunnel through the layers of space/time, a shortcut that we could travel to in order to reach the other side of the universe in seconds. Of course, the existence of such wormholes is not necessarily confirmed or stable, so there’s a few minor problems there.
However, as unlikely as all of these seem, it’s probable that in the next five hundred years, we will travel to the nearest star.
Alpha Centauri, here we come!