“By striving to do the impossible, man has always achieved what is possible.”
~ Mikhail Bakunin
Though arguably premature, a number of interstellar spacecraft have been envisioned. Some of these are science fiction, but many have become real engineering exercises. Common to both the fictional and engineered, the most daunting challenge is how to propel these spacecraft – their propulsion and power systems.
For an interesting article – with even more interesting comments – see this Centauri Dreams posting from December, 2011.
The Voyager spacecraft can be considered humanity's first real interstellar craft. Three decades after their launch, they have reached the edge of our solar system and are still sending back data.
Other starship ideas have been studied in enough detail to predict their performance and the level of effort needed to build and launch them. Such engineering exercises improve our understanding of the challenges and our limits.
"Propulsion" is the general term for the devices that move vehicles. In a sense, "propulsion" means the "engines" of spacecraft. For starflight, this also includes the power source.
Many competing ideas exist, and many researchers have their favorite. The list provided here is not intended to highlight favorites, but simply to present the real information on each.
The list spans methods that already exist to those that still require physics breakthroughs before they can be designed.
Science fiction has been found to inspire young people to become real scientists and engineers. The stories, vehicles, and even technical mistakes can provoke deep thought that eventually leads to understanding the problems and potential solutions.
Science fiction is also a way to convey complex issues to general audiences so that the possibilities for the future can be understood and then lead to better decisions now. It can be the overlap between the cool geeky technology visions and their broader relevance to humanity.
The list provided here is NOT all of the science fiction starships, but rather some of the key examples where new terms or ideas were introduced, and those which were most influential to some of Tau Zero's participants.