How to Build a Starship

A Ten-Point Plan to Begin Exploring the Cosmos

Introduction: The Apple Pie Imperative

Carl Sagan wrote that, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” It might be said, by the same token, that in order to build a starship from scratch, you must first invent an industrial infrastructure. We can flesh this idea out a bit more with reference to the longer version of what Sagan wrote:

“To make an apple pie, you need wheat, apples, a pinch of this and that, and the heat of the oven. The ingredients are made of molecules — sugar, say, or water. The molecules, in turn, are made of atoms — carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and a few others. Where do these atoms come from? Except for hydrogen, they are all made in stars. A star is a kind of cosmic kitchen inside which atoms of hydrogen are cooked into heavier atoms. Stars condense from interstellar gas and dust, which are composed mostly of hydrogen. But the hydrogen was made in the Big Bang, the explosion that began the Cosmos. If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

To build a starship, you need steel framing members, titanium sheet metal, copper wiring, and a few other components from here and there, and the labor of dedicated technicians. These components are made of raw materials. Where do these raw materials come from? They come from the same sources of Sagan’s apple pie, and they are refined by industries. The industrial infrastructure that we human beings have been building on Earth for the past ten thousand years — and even before industry at the scale of civilization, there was the industry of stone and bone tools — will eventually be the industrial infrastructure that will construct a starship. If you wish to make a starship from scratch, you must first invent an entire industrial infrastructure, and in order to invent an industrial infrastructure, you must first have a civilization capable of building that infrastructure.

1. Start with a species of sufficient cognitive capacity to master technology.

Although human beings are biological beings with a conceptual framework that is often prominently biocentric (and E. O. Wilson has devoted a book to our biophilia), perhaps more significant is the human knack for technology. Our earliest ancestors millions of years ago already employed stone tools, and modern human beings have made more kinds of tools and more complex tools than anything that could be imagined from our biological origins. This has required not just a mind of sufficient cognitive capacity, but also a mind of a particular kind — a technological mind. When we say that human beings are a tool-making animal (homo faber), this is what we mean: a biological being with a strong bent for technology.

A counterfactual history of human beings, or another intelligent species that hewed more closely to a biocentric paradigm, might have a very different history in which technologies that exteriorized our interior life played a much smaller role, or the technologies that were employed widely were themselves biocentric technologies — a biotech civilization. Such a counterfactual civilization might be of the greatest interest, but it would not likely be a civilization that built an industrial infrastructure that could eventually build a starship.

The spirit of not only technology, but even industry prior to the origins of civilization, is revealed by the Grime’s Graves flint mine in Norfolk, England, where for more than a thousand years hundreds of mining shafts were sunk for the flint underground — a valuable commodity of a society at the stage of lithic technology. Since certain kinds of flint and obsidian can be traced to their sources, we know from archaeological evidence that there were trade networks that exchanged lithic tools and materials over geographically large areas well before the advent of civilization. We might, in addition to calling ourselves a tool-making animal, also call ourselves an industrial animal, because we created industries even before we created civilizations.

We cannot say that our contemporary technological civilization was inevitable given our cognitive technological orientation, but we can at least observe that, once the large-scale social organization of civilization appeared, its telos was the technological civilization of today. Whether or not the telos of contemporary industrialized civilization is to build a starship is another question, but we can at least observe that, if this form of civilization persists for a sufficient period of time, with ongoing development of science and technology, that this form of civilization will enable the construction of starships. Moreover, given the role of biological individuality, if we eventually build the capacity to construct starships, there will be some population of individuals with an interest in building them and flying them.

2. Begin the development of technology as early as possible.

In the case of human beings, technology (and industry) is older than civilization, and much older than science. Pre-human ancestors are known to have used stone tools millions of years ago. As the brain in our lineage grew, our ancestors made more sophisticated tools, and by the time we become modern human beings, we made tools out of everything present in our environment, and eventually started making more sophisticated tools from earlier generations of tools.

Technology, then, like art, far predates civilization and the organization of knowledge that attends civilization and which culminates in scientific knowledge. However, it would be just as legitimate to say that engineering precedes science as to say that technology precedes science, as there was no clear distinction between engineering and technology for our earliest ancestors, and indeed there was no distinction between these and science, and no distinction between science and religion, and so on. Much that we clearly distinguish today was not distinguished in the past, and the deeper one penetrates into the past the less differentiated are the various aspects of human life. Our first efforts as a species to understand the world, to express our understanding of the world, and to act effectively in the world were one and the same.

The differentiation that accompanies development converges upon specialization, and we think of technology and engineering as specializations, but they are specializations that preceded the development and differentiation that grew out of them. That the early development of technology is the origin of much that we take to be distinctively human is further testimony of the technological cast of the human mind.

3. Starting a civilization is a necessary prerequisite to starship construction — a mediation between an intelligent species and the building of a starship.

The earliest iteration of civilization will be a rudimentary stage of development, but a necessary stage of development nevertheless. The large-scale organization of human and material resources is a necessary prerequisite to the industries that mine and refine metals, that machine, bend, drill, rivet, and weld metal, that build the precision machine tools and instruments that make it possible to build more powerful and more sensitive instruments, and so on.

And the earliest iterations of human civilization involved metallurgical technologies that would, thousands of years later, be central to building an industrialized infrastructure. Our Neolithic ancestors were already smelting metals to make both tools and decorative art — decorating themselves with the technology that they themselves invented. Jewelry is a technology meant to enhance human beauty and attractiveness. Only a technological species would find its own technology alluring.

Human beings build civilizations; civilizations build starships, if these civilizations are the kind of civilizations that incorporate ongoing technological development, as does human civilization. The final expression of all the human activities that, taken together, constitute that complex institution of institutions that we call civilization, as embodied in some civilizational artifact like the Taj Mahal or a starship, is that expression that is capable of designing and constructing a starship and all that this entails for the maintenance of terrestrial life away from Earth. This is not only a technological problem, it is, at the same time, a social problem, a moral problem, a political problem, and so on. Human societies are always problematic, and it is because we recognize that they are problematic and we seek to solve the problems that we learn the lessons we need to learn that will eventually make it possible for us to be a spacefaring and multi-planetary species.

4. Science in its earliest form should appear at least coeval with civilization, if not before.

As the emerging institutions of civilization make a trial of possible forms of social organization and integration, the resources made available by civilization — written language, systems of record keeping, an expanding circle of round-about production processes, etc. — are resources made available to the organization and dissemination of scientific knowledge, even before scientific knowledge is fully differentiated. An individual in a nomadic hunter-gatherer society would have few opportunities to pass along any insights or discoveries to any persons other than immediate family. With civilization, this changes. Increasing numbers of individuals live in cities, bringing together the intelligent and the ambitious. Specialization means that, in addition to potters, weavers, and blacksmiths, there are a small number of individuals who can devote themselves to the pursuit of knowledge.

At the beginning of civilization, the numbers of individuals who can specialize in the pursuit of knowledge is very small, but already by the time of classical antiquity in human civilization, there was the Platonic Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum in Athens, the Library at Alexandria, and numerous other educational institutions. When classical antiquity had passed the torch of knowledge to the Golden Age of Islamic civilization, there was the House of Wisdom in Baghdad (Bayt al-Hikma) and the survival of classical texts in Byzantium, and so on down through the ages. It begins as only a trickle of knowledge, valued by few, understood by even fewer, but the trickle eventually becomes a stream, and in our time the stream has become a river.

Human civilization might have developed writing earlier than it did, perhaps at the same time as agriculture or even before. In a counterfactual civilization in which written knowledge can be preserved on a pan-generational scale, the scientific organization of knowledge can begin even earlier, perhaps also driving changes in society at an earlier and faster rate. This opportunity is no longer available to human civilization, but it may be exemplified elsewhere in the universe.

5. The formalization of science must precede the development of the most advanced technologies, which formalization in human history begins with the scientific revolution.

Science in its early and almost inchoate state can go only so far. We can raise ourselves up out of the most primitive way of life to the initial achievements of civilization through science, technology, and engineering that never goes beyond intuitive and informal organization. In order to develop further, in order to build an advanced industrialized economy that can someday build the capacity to construct a starship, it is necessary that science research be made systematic, which means the systematic pursuit of an explicitly defined scientific research project, and that scientific knowledge be formalized.

In human history, the resources of advanced mathematics and formal systems were already being developed in classical antiquity, but almost two thousand years elapsed before these mathematical, logical, and formal resources were harnessed to the systematization of empirical knowledge. Arguably, we needed this time in order to build the social institutions that could someday support an industrialized economy touching on every aspect of life, and in so doing transforming human life. This is no small achievement for the species.

The build-out of our large-scale epistemic organization entailed the need for academic capacity-building. We built this capacity before we knew that we needed it, or what we needed it for. It was one of the tasks of medieval Europe to develop a university system that was later exapted for use as centers of scientific research. Without these social prerequisites, the development of formalized science may have been an orphan, like Hero of Alexander’s steam turbine, built in classical antiquity, but only an amusement; no industrial revolution followed from its exploitation.

6. With formalized science, formal scientific research programs should supplant trial and error in the growth of scientific knowledge.

The contemporary pursuit of scientific knowledge is only indirectly the work of individuals; the individual pursues science within the context of a number of overlapping institutions (government, academic, economic, publishing, scientific societies, etc.), any one of which institutions continue in their work as individuals come and go. The scientific research program itself is a social undertaking that transcends the individual scientist.

Now that we know what can be done with socially coordinated scientific research programs, institutions for the cultivation and dissemination of scientific knowledge, and the effort to formalize our scientific knowledge in a way that greater rigor begets greater precision, both of scientific ideas and of scientific practice, the way forward is clear: pushing outward the boundaries of knowledge wherever boundaries are discovered, pioneering new forms of rigor and new forms of epistemic organization.

There are, today, critics of the kind of highly theoretical science being pursued that is beyond the ability of contemporary research methods or technologies to test — I am thinking especially of the critics of string theory, who note that it is “not even wrong” because it cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed. This criticism is wrong-headed. Not only is it wrong-headed, it is on the losing side of history, if we are able to maintain ourselves and our scientific knowledge in the future.

The future of science is precisely to expand this kind of speculative research, and to do so in every conceivable way — hopefully by doing so making even more avenues of scientific inquiry conceivable that are not conceivable today — so that as methodologies and technologies of scientific research build capacity, the experimentalists will have any number of theories to test and to explore as they catch up to the theoreticians. There is a sense in which the trial-and-error of scientific inquiry moves from empirical research in early stages of science to theoretical research in the mature stages of scientific development. And in so far as the resources expended upon big science cannot afford large-scale trial-and-error, but, as a society, we can afford to have theoreticians working out their models in ever greater detail, this development represents an improved allocation of resources.

7. Civilization must make the transition from an agricultural to an industrial form of organization.

The exploitation of technologies at industrial scale requires the kind of industry to which we have become accustomed since the industrial revolution. In an industrial revolution, civilization, elaborated for a sufficient period of time, crosses the threshold from the loosely-coupled STEM cycle to a tightly-coupled STEM cycle, at which point an industrialization transforms both society and economy from an agricultural basis to an industrial basis. This social and economic transformation is a necessary condition of both the develop and adoption of technology on the scale of an industrial infrastructure that can build a starship.

In the case of human history, this transition occurred relatively rapidly, starting about two hundred years ago and remaining ongoing to the present day. If we compare this to this thousands of years required for human societies to make the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculturalism and pastoralism, the pace of the industrial revolution has been breath-taking, and it has left us more than a little dazed and confused, albeit in possession of a planetary civilization tightly bound together by global telecommunications and transportation networks. We have built ourselves a capacity that we scarcely know how to use, or to what purpose we ought to use it, and hence an industrial infrastructure ripe for exaptation by some meaning or purpose that can inform its further and future development.

We can posit the possibility of some other civilization making the transition from agricultural to industrial organization much more slowly, about at the rate of Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, so that thousands of years would be required for the technologies and techniques of industrial production and industrial organization to be adopted throughout the world. Such a gradual industrialization might be attended by less less social tension, and a more robust sense of meaning and purpose, but this avenue of development has already been foreclosed for human beings; we have plunged headlong into industrializing the planet entire on a short timetable, and we cannot turn back the clock. We have more than made up for our two thousand years’ delay in the systematic exploitation of science by our breakneck rollout of industrialization.

8. Science must eventually be practiced at an industrial scale enabled by industrialized civilization and become “big science.”

Many of the technologies necessary to the building of starships will involve high energy physics, and materials technology capable of withstanding the demands of high energy physics processes over duty lives defined in years, if not decades. The science of high energy physics requires large and expensive machines, and these are the kind of machines that typify what can come to be called “big science.”

Big science is the largest organization and investment in scientific projects that is found in a mature industrialized society, when the institutions of academia, private industry, and government converge upon scientific projects that are so large in scale, so long-lived in execution, and so expensive that nation-states pool their resources in order to pursue scientific research on the scale of the LHC and ITER.

Big science makes breakthroughs that could not be made at a smaller scale, but the breakthroughs are important not for their physical scale, but for the knowledge they produce. Both the knowledge enabled by big science and the experience and expertise that comes from the construction of machinery at this scale of precision and performance, pushing the boundaries of what is technologically possible, are part of the capacity-building that will someday enable the construction of starships.

At the other end of the scale of big science is small science, even private, personal science, when the knowledge made possible by big science projects becomes widely disseminated and individuals from outside these institutionalized research projects turn their interest and ingenuity toward unexpected uses and application of these scientific breakthroughs.

If the ITER fusion reactor is successful, the governments and industries of the world will want to build enormous fusion power facilities to meet the needs of an industrialized economy and billions of electricity consumers. This is the first and obvious use of the knowledge gained from big science, but there will also be those who will use what will be learned from fusion at ITER to harness fusion for much smaller projects, and there will be those who will want to build a fusion drive for a starship.

9. To build a starship quickly, harness the industrialized infrastructure directly, making starship construction the central project of civilization.

If the resources of planetary industrialized civilization were focused on the building of starships as an aspirational goal, humanity could find itself traveling to nearby stars before the present century has elapsed. This could only come about as a result of a mass social movement, whether organically emerging from a society interested in interstellar exploration, or the result of social engineering that steers mass opinion toward the support of interstellar ventures and an interstellar central project.

Fleets of starships built at extensive shipyards both public and private might yet make humanity a spacefaring species, transforming not only our destiny and that of the worlds to which we will travel, but also transforming life on Earth, that would become the center of a spacefaring civilization, displacing the insistent dystopian and apocalyptic futures now imagined with an Earth that is not only bustling and wealthy, but also a place of great adventure, excitement, and keen anticipation of where we will go next, what we will do next, and what we will learn next.

A starship industry would be predicated upon the buildout of a spacefaring infrastructure, and this in itself would constitute a transformation of the economy as profound as the industrial revolution, of which it would constitute a late development in an ongoing process of economic and industrial institutions.

10. To build a starship slowly, position the enterprise on the margins of the industrialized infrastucture, exapting whatever technologies become sufficiently cheap and unbiquitous.

If the enterprise of interstellar exploration remains a marginal concern to the majority of human beings, with no great resources devoted to the undertaking and no wide cross section of society devoted to the design and construction of starships, it will still be possible to build a starship as long as the industrial-technological economy of our present planetary civilization continues to develop. Starship construction need not be the central project of a civilization for the interstellar enterprise to go forward, albeit at a slower pace.

The ongoing buildout of industrial infrastructure, even if not focused upon space exploration as a central project, will continue to yield increasingly improved technologies at increasingly lower cost. It was never a plan that every individual should carry multiple computers with them every day — a computer in every pocket, almost, like the depression-era promise of a chicken in every pot — but the increasing functionality coupled with decreasing price eventually made computers cheap and ubiquitous. If we wait long enough, the parts needed to build a starship will also become cheap and ubiquitous, and, when they do, building a starship will simply be a matter of purchasing and assembling the requisite components.

The small group of enthusiasts building a private starship will need only a large warehouse as a stable base from which to conduct its project in the midst of an indifferent public and indifferent public institutions (like the gradual, piece by piece construction of a submarine in the photograph above). In order to make this possible, it will be necessary to cultivate a number of passive income streams that can support a small number of individuals who will focus on the slow, patient, methodical assembly of a starship, but in the fullness of time, all of this can be done.

Per aspera ad astra

The two scenarios for building a starship here delineated are not mutually exclusive, and history need not select between the two. A civilization that embarks on a central project of exploring the cosmos would likely result in starships produced by any and all possible means, from enormous spacecraft build by government institutions to personal spacecraft built as garage projects of questionable safety.

At our present stage of scientific and technological development, building a starship seems like a distant goal (even though Breakthrough Starshot is currently working on practical designs for a “starchip”). It is perhaps an inevitable feature of human psychology that we would view the construction of a starship as an end — a far distant end perhaps attainable at some future time we cannot conceive. But it is not an end; it is a threshold. The true history of humanity begins when we build starships and begin to explore the universe that gave birth to us. Everything before this is mere prelude; it is the “per aspera” before the “ad astra.”

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” So said Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who rhapsodized about early air travel, and also wrote the charming story of The Little Prince. If Antoine de Saint-Exupéry were alive today, I have no doubt that he would be as enthusiastic over the advent of spacefaring as he was for the advent of flight.

In the spirit of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, then, we can say: if you want to build a starship, don’t drum up men to forge steel, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless universe.