Take a chance to write the future

by European Space Agency

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From Cyrano de Bergerac's 17th century trip to the Moon and Jules Verne's 19th century Nautilus submarine right up to William Gibson's navigations through cyberspace and Kim Stanley Robinson's colonisation of Mars, authors have always signposted the shape of things to come.

Now ESA is giving young science fiction writers the chance to showcase their own future visions with a worldwide competition. The Clarke-Bradbury International Science Fiction Competition is named in honour of Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury, whose writings have inspired generations of space scientists and explorers.

To highlight this vital connection between initial idea and later reality, writers aged between 15 and 30 are invited to submit short (2500 word maximum) stories dealing with the technologies of space travel, exploration or settlement.

"I hope the competition will attract many entries, and inspire more and more young people to take to writing science fiction," said Arthur C. Clarke. "Today's youth take for granted the marvels of modern technology, many of which were envisioned in the science fiction of my youth (and some of my own stories!)"

“Last year ESA carried out a detailed survey of science fiction concepts in search of those worth real-world development which culminated in a beautifully illustrated brochure. Continual technological progress means ideas that were once wild speculation may now have come within the bounds of feasibility”, noted ESA’s David Raitt, organizer of the competition.

Take the exotic concept of the 'space elevator'. In 1895 Russian theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was inspired by a trip to the Eiffel Tower to imagine a tower reaching up to orbital altitude. Arthur C. Clarke brought the idea up to date in his 1979 novel The Fountains Of Paradise. Crews and cargo could ride elevators up the tower into space.

Now science has discovered a material called carbon nanotubes, strong enough to withstand the tensile stresses an orbital tower would experience. Current thinking suggests that a space elevator could be built within the next dozen years or so. Seattle-based HighLift Systems is well advanced with theoretical and initial development work and estimates that the space elevator would reduce launch costs to a mere €10/kg!

Solar or light sails are another SF concept – first featured in the short stories of Cordwainer Smith and the Arthur C. Clarke tale 'Sunjammer' and set to become reality much sooner. Once unfurled, sails can either be propelled by light from the Sun or alternatively a continuously-firing laser.

Proving the basic concept, a bowl-shaped 'lightship' has been lifted 20 metres high by laser pulses in the USA. While in Europe, ESA and DLR have designed a prototype 20 metre square solar sail for future space flight.

During the ESA study for closer examination more than 250 such technology concepts were collected by scientists, engineers, science fiction writers and laymen from science fiction literature and films. And the hope is that the competition could uncover or generate yet more promising ideas.

Five stories will be selected by an international jury to receive prizes and from these a Winner will be chosen who will be invited to present his/her story at the 2003 International Astronautical Congress in Bremen, Germany. All the best entries will be published in a book by ESA.

The deadline for entries is 28th February 2003. Anyone interested in giving the competition a try can find out more here or contact:

David Raitt
Technology Transfer and Promotion Office
European Space Agency, ESTEC, The Netherlands
email: david.raitt@esa.int

The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. - Arthur C. Clarke