Science fiction meets physics fact in talk by visiting NASA scientist

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Wichita State University will host Watkins Visiting Professorship guest lecturer Les Johnson, technical adviser for NASA’s Advanced Concepts Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Johnson will present two lectures. The first, at 2 p.m., Wednesday, April 22, in Jabara Hall, Room 128, will be a scientific lecture, “Propellantless propulsion: Propelling spacecraft using the natural environments of space.” The second, at 4 p.m. Thursday, April 23, in Lindquist Hall, Room 100, will be a public lecture, “Using space science and technology to help solve energy and environmental problems on Earth.”

WSU physics professor Nicholas Solomey said that Johnson is highly accomplished in physics, and is known for publishing books for the public in an effort to spread interest in science. Johnson also writes science fiction that is closely related to his work at NASA.

“It makes him a very good public speaker, writing these books outside of his research,” Solomey said. “All of this put him over-the-top when it came down to selecting him for the Watkins Physics Lecture.”

Both of Johnson’s talks will be related to his field of expertise – space vehicle propulsion – but will also express how advanced ideas in propulsion can someday move us beyond our solar system to explore planets around other stars.

Johnson serves as principal investigator for the Near Earth Asteroid Scout solar sail mission. He is the author of several popular science books, including “Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel.”

“Like the ancient days of sailing vessels that brought Columbus and early settlers to America, this too might be the way we get to other stars,” Solomey said, “with solar sail colonies, in spaceships where the people who arrive at the star to be explored might actually be born in space aboard the space ship, descendants of those that left the planet. The idea is intriguing, and may be the ultimate exploration mission imaginable.

“It is a blend of real science ideas and science fiction tales that might just become real someday. I expect it to be an exciting talk because of this connection,” Solomey said.

Johnson has appeared on numerous documentaries on The Science Channel, NatGEO and Public Broadcasting Service, and was also featured in the January 2013 issue of National Geographic.

The Watkins Visiting Professorship was created in 1974 by the Watkins Foundation and is funded by a grant through the Watkins fund, part of the Wichita State University Foundation’s endowment.

Source: WSU, Nickolas Solomey

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