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Wednesday, Sep. 19, 2012

The starship project aims high


LONDON — Never mind the constraints of the miserable present: the shrinking budgets, the lost opportunities, the collapsing morale. Thinking is free, so let's think really big. Let's think about ... building a starship in the year 2112.

Well, I've already been thinking about that for decades, actually, but that was just wishful thinking. Now there's a whole organization for thinking about it, with a proper budget and government support and participation by private enterprise, and last week they held a public conference in Houston, Texas: the first annual symposium of the 100 Year Starship Initiative.

The sessions had ambitious titles: "Time and Distance Solutions"; "The Mission: Human, Robotic or Reconstituted?"; "Destinations and Habitats"; "Becoming an Interstellar Civilization". But the organizers also realized that this project will take as long as building a Gothic cathedral: One session was simply called "Research Priorities for the First Ten of 100 Years". Then they'll have to set priorities for the next 10 years, and the next, and the next. ...

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wanted to create an organization to foster "persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel possible." The top proposal, by the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, declared that "100 Year Starship will unreservedly dedicate itself to identifying and pushing the radical leaps in knowledge and technology needed to achieve interstellar flight."

The 100YSS, as it's known, would probably not exist if the professionals interested in space flight had really challenging near-space projects to work on. They don't: one American space scientist described the current American space program, and indeed those of its rivals elsewhere, as "trying to finish what we started in the 1960s." Low-orbit operations are vital, but they are not inspiring.

Some of these frustrated professionals work at NASA and DARPA, so there is official support for thinking big. There's not much money: DARPA gave the 100YSS only half a million dollars of seed money (out of its $3 billion budget), but then nobody is planning to build expensive hardware now. They just want to think about what kind of hardware (and software) would be needed to go to the stars.

If they want to go on thinking big thoughts for very long, of course, they'll need more than half a million dollars, but the rest of the money will have to come from private enterprise. For the moment, that means mainly from the well-funded space companies founded by billionaire entrepreneurs who made their money in other new technologies, and now want to do something even more interesting.

So appoint a charismatic former astronaut to lead the organization — Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space — and make sure that both private business and potential international partners feel comfortable with the approach. It's a natural area for international cooperation: there are probably never going to be rival national starship programs. Add lots of ambition, a pinch of hard-nosed realism, and stir.

The first public outing for this enterprise is the symposium in Houston, and its popular appeal is obvious. It's a heady thought that this may be where the future course of human history is set, and at this stage nobody has to deal with dreary things like budgets and project management. The most outrageous concepts can be welcomed, examined, and pursued or rejected. But is there any realistic prospect that human beings could ever build a starship?

Nobody knows. As Douglas Adams' seminal work, "The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy", sagely observed: "Space ... is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is."

Building a starship would therefore require not just four or five generations of technological revolutions. It would also require the overturning, or at least the wholesale reinterpretation, of the laws of physics as currently understood. Last time around, it took about five centuries, say from 1450 to 1950, to get through a comparable scale of change in technology and physics. But of course things move much faster now.

At any rate, it's hard to see what harm the 100YSS could do, even if it never achieves its objective. If the history of space-flight up to now is any guide, at the very least it would produce radically new technologies that have major positive impacts on human welfare. And if it actually succeeded it would be the biggest deal in human history.

The most recent estimate is that there are about 30,000 planets suitable for our kind of life within a thousand light years of here. Most observers assume that if a planet can support life, then it will almost certainly have life. It would be a great pity to miss out on all that because of a mere lack of ambition.

Gwynne Dyer is a journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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