From the perspective of its passengers, the shuttle platform drifts serenely, the universe rotating gently around it. From a purely physical perspective in the local reference frame of Earth’s centre of mass, it orbits at hundreds of kilometres an hour, adding even more speed to that in order to switch to a more distant orbit, precisely timed to draw near to – but not to intercept – another hurtling space object.
The ship, which comes into view like a leviathan from the deep as the shuttle rotates, shines silver in the light of the Sun, eight light-minutes away and radiating into space the energy that gives life to Earth and powers the civilisation upon it. The watchers let out their breaths in a collective sigh of amazement and awe, even those who have seen it before. From their angle, it faces to their left, a vast and vertical gently conical disc with four flattish domes and a stubby spire protruding from the back of it, a bulge at the tip the mighty engine assembly that will one day propel it into outer space on a long journey between the stars. Supposedly, the short fins around the engines are there to help radiate excess heat, but everyone knows they’re more aesthetic than anything else. This monumental, colossal project has taken the devoted attention of the entire Solar System for a human lifetime, and every care has been lavished upon it. Books have been written about it; countless dreams are dreamt about it. For this is the eternal it: a quest into the unknown, seeking a brave new world with no guarantee that the explorers or their descendants will ever come home again. And despite the dangers of a one-way mission through the blackness of space, even with a target precisely identified at its end, more than ten times the number of people the mighty ship can support have applied to travel aboard it. Selection processes have been employed to whittle them down, taking only the brightest and the best in their respective fields, and those with the psychological makeup to help them enjoy, rather than grow to resent, the home that will be theirs for the rest of their lives. From the talented engineer to the optimistic and willing street sweeper, every place on the ship has been assessed and filled.
For the first generation, the ship will have a command crew, the ship’s computer programmed to respond to the nanites in their blood. Augmented in order to interact and interface with it most effectively, the command crew will guide their miniature world through the first years of its mission, reacting flexibly to problems as they arise while the governmental system that will ultimately take over from them grows into maturity. Even if the small number of crew wished to hold onto power, they wouldn’t be able. Too small to form a viable gene pool amongst themselves, their descendants’ stock of nanites will be diluted by outbreeding, giving no-one preferential access to or control over the ship that will bear them onwards for generations more. Only occasionally will chance recombination throw up an individual the ship will recognise as a valid crewmember, a sort of final safeguard in case the carefully-framed society were to somehow collapse. It’s this command crew who look out over their new home now.
“She’s beautiful,” the captain observes on a gentle sigh. “I thought I’d get over it, but I never do.”
They all know the magnitude of the task before them, and they embrace it. In a week, they will board the mighty ship for the last time, and never again leave. In six months, the ship itself will leave, boosting its speed with a slingshot course out of the Solar System and accelerating. The gently conical disc at the front will come into its own then: a vast ramscoop, further augmented by an electromagnetic field, that will draw fuel from the depths of space itself to power the ship’s primary and backup fusion reactors. Travelling between the stars, in a sense the tiny ship will carry its own with it, generating light and heat and power through the same processes that drive the sun itself.
There are a thousand million things that could go wrong on their journey, particularly during the tiny fraction of it the crew will live for, when everything is new and nothing entirely tested, because there are no adequate tests for a generations-long mission save the mission itself. Yet, as they gaze at their future hanging in space before them, it is not fear, but awe and honour that they feel at bearing this responsibility and taking humanity to the distant stars.