'Rocket Boy' predicts fast voyages to the planets
By Joe Bauman Deseret News staff writer
OGDEN — A new propulsion system using antimatter soon may open up the solar system to much swifter exploration, the original "rocket boy" of the movie "October Sky" says.
"I think the next time we go (to the moon) we're going to go with a
whole new manner of propulsion," Homer Hickam said Tuesday, speaking before a rapt audience of hundreds of students and members of the public at Weber State University's Val A. Browning Center.
"And these devices, which I call 'space drives,' are actually in the
works today in Huntsville, Ala."
Researchers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville are working on a system using antimatter, he said. Antimatter is an exotic form of matter that annihilates ordinary matter as soon as it comes into contact with it, releasing tremendous amounts of energy.
"October Sky" was the movie version of Hickam's best-selling autobiographical
book, "Rocket Boys," about his struggle to obtain a higher education while growing up in a hardscrabble West Virginia coal town.
He and his high school partners won university scholarships when their extensive rocketry experiments led to first place in a national science fair. Hickam became a NASA engineer, and before his retirement last year he was payload training chief for the International Space Station.
"Huntsville got its first delivery of antimatter about six months ago,"
he said. Researchers there are encouraged about the possibilities of using it to power a new type of space drive, he said.
"We're talking about engines 1,000 to 10,000 times more powerful than the
most powerful chemical rocket system that we've got today."
If the federal government properly funds the research, he added, "they believe, and I believe too, that they could actually field one of these space drives within a 10-year period. . . .
"We would basically be able to bump out to the Moon in a matter of hours,"
rather than take several days, as the Apollo astronauts did. A visit to Mars might take 10 weeks each way, instead of the projected 10 months in each direction.
During a Deseret News interview, Hickam described technical problems that face the development of the space drive.
"The major technical hurdle, of course, is how to handle large quantities
of antimatter. It's extremely powerful stuff. And that's what they're working on right now."
Electromagnetic fields would be used to contain the antimatter, and that will require a great deal of energy, he said. Probably antimatter will be used as an energy source to start a fusion reaction to power a spacecraft.
Other technical hurdles must be overcome, including developing new forms of metallurgy. "I really think that we're up to it. So I think we could do it in 10 years."
Would it require a research and development program on the scale of the Apollo Moon landing project?
"No, I don't think so — I think a much smaller scale. Of course, we'd
be building smaller drives at first, primarily for robotic type missions."
According to Hickam, a project on the scale of the Apollo effort might be needed to build a true starship using the space drives, and "we're a long way from that."
In his Browning Center talk, he said the space drive could open the solar system not just to exploration or scientific research but actually to colonization. People could go there to work.
"I am, after all, a West Virginia boy, so I would personally like to see
the Moon mined," Hickam said.
The United States could use the new space drives, leading the way to colonizing the solar system, he believes.
Ever since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been
"really . . . looking for something greater than itself," Hickam said.
As far as Hickam is concerned, that "ought to be going out and settling the solar system and bringing to the United States and the world all that it contains."
He recalled an incident that profoundly affected him during his youth in West Virginia.
Hickam was in trouble for his rocket experiments. But then a preacher comforted him, telling him that he had had a dream that men would go to the Moon and that Hickam would be one of them.
When the minister awoke he went to the Bible. His eyes happened to fall upon 2 Peter 3:13,
"Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new
Earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness."
It took Hickam a long time to understand what the preacher meant, he said. Then he finally understood, "my life would be dedicating to fulfilling the promise," which would be the opportunity of mankind to look for new heavens and new Earths.
The solar system is filled with mineral wealth, but more importantly, it has an inexhaustible supply of energy. He believes one of the most significant of these supplies is the helium-3 that covers the Moon, the result of deposits from the solar wind that continually blows from the Sun.
"Helium-3 is the perfect fuel for fusion reactors," he said. Hickam thinks
it is no coincidence that mankind is able to reach the Moon to mine it just at a time when fusion reactors may become practical.
"The root problem there (in Third World countries) is the lack of cheap
and plentiful energy resources," Hickam added.
The United States can lead the way into space, harvesting energy and other resources that can benefit the world, he believes.