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Firing up the warp drive at this year’s BOLDtalks Australia

Dr. Andreas Tziolas of Icarus Interstellar discusses space, technology and StarTrek to The Modern Connoisseur as he prepares to present at BOLDTalks Australia in Melbourne

Words by: Geoff Ferres
Photography provided by Smalltalk PR

Dr. Andreas Tziolas is a man with a vision, but it’s not of this world. Tziolas, Co-Founder and Vice President of Icarus Interstellar, oversees a global team of researchers advancing the design of manned multi-generational inter-stellar spaceships. In the days leading up to the BOLDtalks Australia 2013 convention in Melbourne, at which Tziolas will explore the challenges of designing a manned inter-stellar space ark and the applications of related technologies to current-world sustainability challenges, I spoke to Tziolas by telephone from his home in Anchorage, Alaska.

I began by asking Tziolas about his inspiration to get involved in this incredible line of work. With a background spanning a remarkably broad range of themes in the space genre (including life detection modules for Mars missions, black-hole theory research and spacecraft design), I was fascinated to understand what drove Tziolas to bring together so many concepts in such an exciting field. The answer, it turns out, was television. “It was StarTrek that got me started down the path”, Tziolas happily admits, “I was fascinated since I was a very young boy of 4 years old”.

With inter-stellar flight firmly imprinted in his imagination, Tziolas studied physics and became heavily involved with spacecraft engineering (“grease monkey type work, relatively speaking”). For most, this work would satisfy their space ambitions… but not for Tziolas.

“I really wanted a 360 degree understanding of what was going on in the universe”, so he completed his PhD in the field of black-hole theory (“in the back of my head, I hoped there would be a glimmer of hope for a warp drive or something like that”). With his research complete, Tziolas was now armed with a firm grasp on both spaceflight engineering and theoretical cosmology. The pieces were in place and Tziolas didn’t have to wait long for opportunity to knock. In 2008, on the day he was awarded his PhD, Tziolas was approached by a friend to re-enter the field of spacecraft engineering and he jumped at the chance. “It was like a home coming and I thought to myself, this sounds really cool”. The Icarus Interstellar dream was born.

Icarus Interstellar – now a 200-strong research foundation – is advancing a diverse portfolio of projects that address the full range complexities associated with manned inter-stellar spaceflight. The vision is grand, the task immense and the challenges daunting. Tziolas explains that many of the projects “pass on the baton” from the seminal work of the British Interplanetary Society’s Project Daedalus (1973-78). Project Daedalus, an extensive study conducted to design a plausible unmanned interstellar spacecraft using only current or near-future technologies, is both a reference point and a source of inspiration for Tziolas’ team.

The Icarus Interstellar team’s flagship initiative is Project Icarus, a pre-cursor unmanned robotic nuclear fusion probe. The primary focus of the research group’s current efforts, “Project Icarus is the one that we’ve made the most progress on… we’ve been at it for the longest”. Other projects underway, all with suitably fantastical names, include Project Helius (laser-initiated pulse propulsion), Project Tin Tin (inter-stellar nanosat mission to Alpha Centauri), Project Forward (beamed energy and sails), Project XP4 (deep future propulsion and generation), Project BiFrost (nuclear space technologies), Project Hyperion (manned inter-stellar vessels) and Project Persephone (adaptable architectures for star ships and cities). Across all of the projects there is a common level of ambition: “we look for massive increases in performance, not just incremental steps”.

I asked Tziolas about the journey to ‘lift off’ for Icarus Interstellar’s visionary projects. In the context of unlimited investment, Tziolas believes “we could build an inter-stellar pre-cursor like Icarus within 40 years”. Now that’s an exciting prospect but, as Tziolas will explore in his BOLDtalks presentation this Saturday, “it’s more about the path less travelled than it is about the objective”.

“In the process of trying to find solutions to design and build a star ship you completely break the mould … you have to forget everything you know about spacecraft engineering”. While “the size is remarkable and the fuels are unobtainable”, if you “take the star ship apart and look at the various systems, you can find a way to apply these to other things in life and … the spin off technologies would be remarkable”. Tziolas explains that the real meaning of Icarus Interstellar’s efforts is to “find radical transformative ways to improve life on earth by injecting this remarkable technology” and that “humanity travelling to another star, proliferating the race to another solar system is by the far the most important thing that humanity can do”.

Before we finish our call, Tziolas leaves me with one last thought. “The next generation needs some inspiration beyond what NASA gave to us … kids want challenges – they don’t want to go to the Moon, they want to do something they own”. This drive for new horizons is proving “very, very attractive to young adults and students to pursue inter-stellar studies” with Icarus Interstellar recruiting 40 new students in the last 2 weeks! Tziolas believes the energy and enthusiasm of these new-comers to the field is going to cause interest in inter-stellar flight to explode in the public imagination. “No one can stop it because it’s the kids that are driving it… when they’re in a position to start making decisions, that’s when we’re going to see a star ship being built in our lifetime”.

Dr. Tziolas, we commend you. Please follow Captain Picard’s advice and “make it so” sometime very soon.

Dr. Andreas Tziolas is the visionary Co-Founder and Vice President of Icarus Interstellar, a non-profit foundation dedicated to achieving inter-stellar flight by the year 2100. He will be one of several speakers presenting on a range of topics at the BOLDtalks Australia 2013 convention on Saturday, 9 November, at the Malthouse in Melbourne. For more information, please click here.

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