"We thought of a clever idea of how you might use fusion to do manned space travel," explains John Slough. The University of Washington research professor discusses such seemingly impossible ideas with the cavalier nature one might otherwise reserve for picking out shirts in the morning. The white-haired academic wore his sandals to the office today, chuckling on occasion about the grandiosity of it all. Here in a nondescript business park in Redmond, WA, Slough and fellow UW staff members think they've found the secret to speedy interplanetary travel: small-scale nuclear fusion.
"A realistic trip to Mars, as NASA has studied extensively, requires 1,680 days," Slough says, standing in front of the mess of electronics his company has taken to calling The Fusion Engine. "It required 11 launches from the most powerful rockets we have. Those two things would probably eliminate it. It would be something like $20 billion just to put the stuff in space. We thought that if you could exhaust the propellant at a speed that's comparable to the speed you want to go, which you can do with a different energy source, you can reduce that trip time to as short as 30 days."
It's a lot to wrap one's head around, how imploding metal can heat plasma to fusion temperature in the neighborhood of hundreds of millions of degrees, but Slough breaks it all down on the latest Peripheral Vision with the patience and simple language of the high school science teacher we all wished we'd had.