Presidential candidate Mitt Romney had a chuckle over Newt Gingrich’s proposal to build a colony on the Moon during last Thursday’s debate in Florida, but before he really busts a gut laughing he may want to check out the 100 Year Starship. The new project kicked off last year under the auspices of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with the aim of launching a manned space craft that will send Earth dwellers way past the moon, to a galaxy far, far away. Now go ahead, laugh at the Department of Defense. We dare you!
First Steps to Interstellar Travel
Last fall, DARPA hosted the 100 Year Starship Symposium with the aim of getting the public to start thinking seriously about interstellar travel, and to that end it issued an open invitation for papers. In its solicitation, DARPA outlined the kind of thinkers it is looking for:
“A century can fundamentally change our understanding of our universe and reality. Man’s desire to explore space and achieve the seemingly impossible is at the center of the 100 Year Starship Study Symposium. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA Ames Research Center (serving as execution agent), are working together to convene thought leaders dealing with the practical and fantastic issues man needs to address to achieve interstellar flight one hundred years from now.”
A Leader for the 100 Year Starship
Earlier this month, according to an unconfirmed report on BBC, DARPA offered leadership of the initial phase of the project, the 100 Year Starship Study, to Dr. Mae Jemison, a former astronaut and science education leader. After leaving NASA, Dr. Jemison went on to found the Jemison Foundation for Excellence and was instrumental in the development of the international youth science camp program The Earth We Share. Last summer’s “TEWS – Spacerace” program included challenges like designing a mission to the sun and answering the question, “What are we going to do for food on the way to Alpha Centuri?”
Next Steps for Interstellar Travel
Dr. Jemison chaired the 100 Year Starship Symposium’s Education, Social, Economic and Legal Considerations component, and her group was assigned to explore issues such as the education mission of the project, how the spacecraft crew would be selected, what kind of economic structure would operate in space, and other questions dealing with profit, politics, and “legacy investments” for a possible round-trip journey. In addition to addressing those questions, the 100 Year Starship Study will examine ways to foster the research needed to design, construct, launch and fly a spacecraft capable of interstellar travel, and to anticipate the social, political and cultural baggage that human beings would need to carry along for a trip of that sort.
A Business Model for Interstellar Travel
During last week’s debate, Romney dismissed the notion of a moon colony out of hand due to the enormous expense but DARPA has already taken that into account. A central goal of the 100 Year Starship Study is to explore “agile financial mechanisms to sustain innovation” and outline a business model for an organization that would be capable of carrying the project forward through several generations, hence the name “100 Year Starship.” As for Gingrich, his concept for a moon colony falls short in that regard. Apparently he envisions an exclusively American endeavor, but DARPA has already begun reaching out to international partners.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.