Starship dreamers launch 100-year mission with DARPA grant

USS Enterprise Wikimedia Commons

Washington Post | May 22, 2012

By Brian Vastag

Humanity’s journey to the stars is beginning with . . . a modest government grant.

The dreamers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency last week announced an award of $500,000 to a former astronaut to launch an effort to — someday — send explorers to another star system.

It’s a huge job, impractical with existing technology. That’s why the 100 Year Starship Study project will start by building a community of space enthusiasts, engineers, technologists, futurists, scientists and dreamers to chip away at a panoply of technical, financial and social challenges — while seeking funds to keep the effort afloat.

“The first step is to get the seed money to grow into something more while also getting the public engaged,” said Mae Jemison, the former astronaut whom DARPA chose to head the effort. “It has to become something that has its own momentum.”

In 50 years of space exploration, humans have hardly made it out of the driveway of our home planet. NASA’s trips to the moon took three days each way. Mars, the next planet over, is nine months distant by robotic flier. At the speeds attained on those trips, the journey to the nearest neighboring star would take tens of thousands of years.

A starship, then, will need giant engines that draw more power than we know how to produce, said Les Johnson, a NASA scientist who has worked on designs for robotic probes to travel outside our solar system. “There’s no law of physics that says it won’t work,” he said. “Maybe if we get creative in our engineering we can do this.”

In its grant solicitation, DARPA wrote that it wants to “foster a rebirth of a sense of wonder” while encouraging research that will pay dividends here on Earth.

In Jemison, the agency tapped not only a space traveler — in 1992 she became the first woman of color to leave Earth, on the space shuttle — but a physician, engineer, entrepreneur and champion of science education. Her vision: Generate excitement for a grand human ad­ven­ture.

“It’s got to be a global aspiration,” said Jemison.

Her first organizational challenge is getting a 100 Year Starship conference off the ground in Houston this September. Within a century, she wants the project to fund and foster the technologies needed to build a starship.

As a girl, Jemison was entranced with space journeys, real and imagined. She was 12 when she watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, and she counts Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on the original “Star Trek” television series, as one of her heroes. (Jemison herself appeared on an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”)

“I’ve always thought the public never lost fascination with space,” Jemison said of the post-moonshot era. “They just felt left out.”

Johnson said a small but dedicated set of space enthusiasts has been mulling starships for decades. Most notably, the British Interplanetary Society published plans for a notional starship called Project Daedalus in 1978.

Paul Gilster, a writer and futurist who keeps close tabs on such work in his blog Centauri Dreams, likened the 100 Year Starship to megaprojects such as European cathedrals and Egyptian pyramids, whose construction spanned generations. “We need to acknowledge we won’t see the end [of the project] ourselves,” he said.

Public interest is sure to grow, Gilster added. He pointed to the discovery of hundreds of planets outside our solar system. “We’re entering what I call the golden age of exoplanets,” he said. “We should know within two years whether there are rocky worlds around Alpha Centauri,” the star nearest our sun.

Finding these alien worlds naturally leads to the next question: How do we get there?

In beating out 20 competitors for the grant, Jemison tapped a group of scientists and engineers already studying how to travel to the stars. They call themselves Icarus Interstellar, and one of their advisers, planetary scientist Ralph McNutt of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, called the 100 Year Starship “an opportunity to get beyond the realm of science fiction.” He likened our current space vehicles to “dugout canoes.” But someday, he said, we’ll have the equivalent of ocean liners in space.

“I think it’s a great idea,” NASA’s Johnson said. “If we’re ever going to get to another star, we’ve got to start sometime.”

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