Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

January 10, 2013

Ashland native featured in National Geographic

Tim Preston
CNHI News Service

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Les Johnson grew up on Lynnhaven Court in Ashland dreaming about ways to get to outer space and stocking sci-fi novels on the shelves at The Book Rack.

Some of those locally born dreams are the focus of an article called “Crazy Far” in the January edition of National Geographic magazine. As a NASA physicist and deputy manager of the advanced-concepts office at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Johnson is accustomed to sharing his ideas with writers and reporters. When it came to being the subject of an NG story, however, Johnson said he was more than happy to be involved.

“To me that was a way cool surprise,” he said, explaining he’d previously talked to an editor at the prestigious magazine about the topic of interstellar travel, and later learned the discussion had resulted in a major feature story. Johnson chuckled as he recalled seeking NASA approval for the story.

“Of course, NASA was all for it. National Geographic is kind of in a class of its own,” Johnson said Wednesday morning from his office.

“It’s kind of important to communicate what we’re doing,” he added, explaining people within the space community and places like Huntsville “are in kind of a bubble,” and often oblivious to the questions of people who aren’t part of the program.

The 1980 graduate of Paul G. Blazer High School said he has no family remaining in the area, although he does try to visit “about every year and a half” to see old friends. Johnson graduated from Transylvania University in Lexington with a degree in chemistry and physics in 1984 and earned a master’s degree in physics at Vanderbilt University. His first book, “Living Off the Land in Space,” was written with Gregory Matloff and C Bangs. Along with Giovanni Vulpetti and Gregory L. Matloff, he wrote “Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel.” He is also the lead author on the book “Paradise Regained,” and has written several other fiction and nonfiction books.

For the NG article, Johnson was one of several forward-thinking scientists who shared their thoughts about how man might someday travel to other planets without rewriting the rules of physics. While man has had solid suggestions that other planets exist in orbits around other suns, Johnson said proof of the theory has been in hand for only a few decades.

“So the question is, ‘What do we do about it? Can we go?’,” he asked, explaining the distances involved, even for the nearest solar system, are nearly too immense to imagine. To make things simpler, Johnson suggests thinking of the 93-million-mile distance from the Earth to our sun as a single foot. Using that measure, the distance to Pluto would be roughly 38 feet, “and the nearest star would be about 30 miles away.”

Citing the 1977 launch of Voyager, “one of our fastest ships today,” Johnson said the craft will encounter its next star system in more than 75,000 years — well beyond the reach of modern technology for a manned mission.

“In the article we discuss ways to do it, possible solutions, with real physics,” he said, adding these things are possible, “but the engineering is beyond anything we can imagine.”

Johnson summarized that possible methods for interstellar travel would include a matter/anti-matter battery, nuclear fusion such as that which fuels the sun or massive solar sails that use the actual force of traveling light particles to move a craft through vast expanses of space. Solar sails have long been a fascination for Johnson, who anxiously awaits the 2014 launch of the U.S. “Sunjammer” project, with a solar sail “almost 13,000 square feet, or a third of an acre,” according to NASA. While it is a tremendous leap forward, Johnson said the project won’t be big enough for star voyagers.

“If you’re going to fly to another star, you need one the size of Texas,” he said.

TIM PRESTON can be reached at tpreston@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2651.