Swords to Plowshares

Interview with Ann Druyan and Steven Soter
Exploring Space Independently

The Cosmos 1 solar sail. Credit: Babakin Space Center, The Planetary Society ©

Kathleen Connell: We’ve seen that Congress eliminated the SETI program – now Project Phoenix – from its budget several years ago. Currently major scientific endeavors are primarily funded by the public sector. Do you see a role for visionary social entrepreneurs in this field to move us along?

Ann Druyan: Our company, Cosmos Studios, has funded the very first solar sail. We had our first launch from an intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM] on a Russian submarine in the Barents Sea in July. We unfortunately had a third-stage separation failure, which was a problem of the ICBM rather than our spacecraft. But we are launching again in the early fall. Solar sailing is a kind of technology which is, to me, up there with what the Wright Brothers did, in that it has the capacity, when combined with space-based lasers, to enable us to move through space ten times faster than even the Voyager spacecraft, which goes mighty fast-38,000 miles an hour. To go ten times faster than that begins to get you a kind of very practical rapid transit system for our local neighborhood in space, but also even to go to the stars.

Now, it’s pretty amazing to me that Cosmos Studios (in partnership with the Planetary Society), which is a small company, provided every dollar for it, until we were able to enlist the support of the Arts and Entertainment Network. They gave us some help. This is a pioneering space mission for less than four million dollars. It’s pretty astonishing to me. It made me feel like Doctor Evil in the movie Austin Powers! You get the ICBM launch, the spacecraft with the cameras mounted onboard, which will send images of the spacecraft back to Earth, and then other launches should you fail, for less than four million dollars. It seems like it just couldn’t be true, but it is true.

The Cosmos 1 flights launch from this Russian submarine. Credit: The Planetary Society ©.

We’re now in the midst of planning other missions which are even more ambitious, and which are in the same ballpark in terms of the cost involved. So there’s no doubt in my mind that there’ll be other companies very soon and other individuals who are going to want to do this kind of stuff, because what a grand enterprise it is, and it’s all for the price of a nice New York apartment. It’s pretty unbelievable.

Steven Soter: Could I also mention that this is the ultimate turning of swords into plowshares. Here’s a Russian ICBM, which is now being used not to threaten the destruction of cities, but to launch scientific payloads into space. And there’re lots of them that could be used for that.

Kathleen Connell: So you’re using a converted ICBM for the solar sail launch vehicle.

Ann Druyan: Yes, a sub-launched ICBM. And that’s another thing I wish Carl Sagan could have lived to see. He would have loved this aspect of it, that the same missile that was supposed to rain destruction on everything we love and cherish is now the means for getting this really cool spacecraft into orbit.