Saturday June 18th 2011

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A Look Inside the 100 Year Starship Idea

Technology fails at the damnedest times, which is particularly ironic when discussing something as futuristic as a starship. But then, a starship launched in a hundred or more years won’t be worrying about small cassette recorders like my little Olympus, which chewed up the tape on which I was recording the June 16 teleconference held by DARPA’s David Neyland about the 100 Year Starship Study. Fortunately, I am a wizard at note-taking by hand, which comes from my love of fountain pens (I collect and repair vintage instruments) and enjoyment of script on a yellow legal pad. I always take notes by hand as well as taping where possible, a good thing because I didn’t realize what had happened to the tape until after the teleconference had ended.

Neyland, who is director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, is an engaging man with a bit of a penchant for science fiction — he mentioned Heinlein as an inspiration, but also gave credit to Jules Verne. After all, it was all the way back in 1865 that Verne came up with From the Earth to the Moon, a remarkable achievement, Neyland noted, when you considered that the US was just coming out of the Civil War at that time. Yet Verne’s imagination not only delivered an idea, but also managed to communicate the excitement of a lunar voyage to later generations. That 100-year time interval fed into Neyland’s thinking about what might come to fruition another century from now, and conversations with Pete Worden at NASA Ames firmed up the idea.

The 100 Year Starship is intended as a small study that will produce ancillary benefits. If you think back to DARPA’s role in the technology of today, Neyland said, what comes to mind right away is the Internet. DARPA did not, contrary to some popular accounts, invent the Internet. What it did do was to come up with ways to connect wired computers and facilitate the exchange of data between them. You can find other examples, as Neyland did: GPS technology received early DARPA attention in the 1960s, while the methods by which cellular telephone towers exchange information, used all over the world, were another early DARPA investment.

Can a starship study produce ancillary benefits? Presumably it can, and those benefits might run across a wide spectrum of human needs starting with energy. Neyland likened what the 100 Year Starship Study is trying to do to the early space program, recalling that many of the benefits from that effort simply faded into commonplace reality as time went by. “If you’ve ever gone into a store and bought a DeWalt drill,” he noted, “you probably don’t think about the fact that cordless drill and battery technology like this goes back to tools needed in the space program.”

So where is all this going? Centauri Dreams readers will recall that there was a conference in California last January in which issues about starship development, ranging all the way from the physics involved to philosophy and ethics, were discussed. A synopsis of the workshop is about to be released on the 100 Year Starship Study Web site.

Addendum: The synopsis is now available.

We’ve recently talked about the study’s Request for Information, and published two responses in these pages. Neyland said there were over 150 responses to the RFI, but acknowledged that they ranged across the board, from serious examinations of the issue to applications to join the starship’s crew (about as big a misreading of what the 100 Year Starship Study is trying to accomplish as is imaginable).

A Request for Proposals will be out by mid-summer, followed by a symposium in Orlando — I’ve already posted the DARPA news release on that one. In November, a grant will be provided to a single organization or individual, assigning what is left of the original seed money, $1 million of which came from DARPA and $100,000 from NASA — the grant should total in the vicinity of $500,000. Making the case for why their organization should be awarded the grant will be the work of those proposing ideas through the RFP process, at which point, when the grant is awarded, Neyland said that NASA and DARPA will both walk away from the effort. It will be up to the winner of the grant to turn the 100 Year Starship idea into a long-term commitment.

So there you are. The idea is to seed a project that will produce spin-offs ranging from agriculture to propulsion to ethics and environmental issues, in the DARPA way of funding new efforts and letting them bloom. Benefits should accrue in research and education along the way, with success in developing the work leading to a cycle of investments that can bring more money in to become a self-sustaining effort. So I stress again, the 100 Year Starship Study (to which the Tau Zero Foundation, among others, will be making a proposal) is not about building a starship. It is about solving problems that will one day have to be solved, with spinoffs along the way, and the hope that the technologies developed may one day evolve into the real thing.

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This article was originally posted on Centauri Dreams