The pioneering cosmonaut who dreamed of interstellar flight.
- By Tony Reichhardt
- AirSpaceMag.com, December 18, 2009
Image from the files of Peter Gorin
A few Saturdays ago, I spent the afternoon tossing out old papers, trying to clear space in my home office. Mostly it was manuscripts and documents from 20 years back, stuff I should have thrown out long ago. One typewritten paper, yellowed with handwritten notes in the margin, was headed for the trash pile when I happened to look down and notice the name: K.P. Feoktistov.
I’d forgotten about this.
Feoktistov, who by chance died a few days later, was a monumental figure in the history of space exploration. In 1958, at the age of 32, he was put in charge of the engineering team that designed the world’s first spaceship, Vostok. He co-wrote the instruction manual for Yuri Gagarin’s first flight on April 12, 1961, and it was Feoktistov who briefed Gagarin on the day before launch.
The paper I found in my office came from a 1987 conference at the Space Studies Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, where Feoktistov had delivered a talk titled “A Flight to Stars.” I recall going up to him later to introduce myself, and chatting briefly through an interpreter. What I hadn’t remembered is that Feoktistov gave me his copy of the talk, with his notes and corrections, including pronunciation guides written in Russian for several troublesome English words.
The conference had to do with space manufacturing, and most of the speakers were academics or NASA engineers. Feoktistov stood out not only because of who he was—he also was a cosmonaut and a member of the first space crew—but because of what he said that day.
He began with a sobering brief on the problem of interstellar flight. Basically, it’s a lost cause to send physical spaceships to other stars, given the vast distances and the intervening clouds of dust and gas that would pose a fatal hazard to vehicles moving at near-light speeds. “It seems,” he said, “that there is no practical solution to the problem of material bodies transport[ing] at gala[ctic] distances.”
Feoktistov proposed instead that we fax digital versions of ourselves to the stars. “It is possible to imagine a specially designed ‘human being’ whose personality you can separate from his body,” he said. “If an information package that is equal to [the] total content of personality can be rewritten from man’s fields of operative operations and from his memory, this information package could be transmitted through radio line to the designated reception station.”
He calculated the size of the transmitting antenna that would be needed (“more than several kilometers”) and the amount of energy required (100 million kilowatts). In addition to beaming a digital person, we’d also need to send (to some as-yet unknown alien civilization) instructions for building the receiving antenna. While acknowledging that his plan required technological leaps, Feokistov concluded “For this approach to star journey we need decades but not thousands of years and not millions of years.”