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warp drive illustration
Among the topics discussed at the Houston symposium was a warp drive concept that contracted spacetime in front of a spaceship (bottom arrow) and expanded it behind it (right arrow), allowing for effective faster-than-light travel—although also requiring “colossal” amounts of energy. (credit: NASA)

Building a starship’s foundation


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There’s no shortage of grandiose ideas when it comes to space: colonizing planets, building space elevators, and terraforming Mars all come to mind. Among the most grandiose, perhaps, is the idea of interstellar travel, particularly with people: at a time when only two nations—neither of them the United States, at least currently—can send humans into space, the idea of sending people light-years to another star sounds like, well, science fiction.

Not surprisingly, among the sessions that attracted the most interest were the ones dealing with the technical issues of traveling to another star, particularly propulsion.

Perhaps the fact that interstellar travel is such a staple of science fiction can explain the broad interest in a project started nearly two years ago by DARPA and NASA called The 100 Year Starship. The goal: to develop the technologies over the next century needed to enable interstellar travel. DARPA, the lead agency for the project, ran a competition for a $500,000 grant to help set up this effort, and held a symposium last fall in Orlando (see “The journey of 100 years begins with a single weekend”, The Space Review, October 10, 2011).

Since last year’s conference, though, the effort has largely been hidden from view. It wasn’t until May that the winner of the $500,000 grant was announced: a group led by the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, run by former astronaut Mae Jemison and named after her mother. The first major public milestone for the new 100 Year Starship team since that award was earlier this month, as the organization hosted a second symposium in Houston. That event demonstrated that the idea of the 100 Year Starship faces both near-term and long-term challenges.

From warp drives to wardrobes

The second symposium, held at a downtown Houston hotel, was considerably smaller than the first event last year in Orlando. Conference organizers said about 250 people attended this year’s event, compared to about 700 in Orlando. One difference is that the Orlando event had no registration fee, while this year’s conference did charge fees of up to $300. Also, last year’s conference took place while the competition for the DARPA grant was ongoing, attracting interest from a broader range of competitors for the award.

Despite the smaller attendance, there was still a wide range of presentations. Not surprisingly, among the sessions that attracted the most interest were the ones dealing with the technical issues of traveling to another star, particularly propulsion. Could there be a way, analogous to Star Trek’s warp drive or Star Wars’s hyperdrive, to dramatically shorten the travel time to another star?

One NASA researcher suggested that some kind of warp drive was, perhaps, slightly less improbable than previously thought. Harold “Sonny” Wright of Eagleworks Laboratories, an internally-funded advanced propulsion lab at the Johnson Space Center, talked about concepts first proposed in the 1990s by Miguel Alcubierre to warp spacetime around a vehicle, contracting it in front of the vessel and expanding it behind it, allowing the vehicle to effectively travel faster than light.

There’s also the question of what people will want to wear over such an extended mission: “Can you really ask someone to dress in polos and khakis for 30 years?” asked Aspelund.

The problem with the Alcubierre drive, White noted, is the “colossally large” energy requirements. “Some of the more popular amounts of energy required to do something interesting are of Jupiter amounts of mass of exotic matter,” he said. White said that by altering the topology of the warp bubble surrounding the spacecraft, though, it may be possible to greatly reduce the energy required: from the mass of Jupiter to the mass of a space probe like Voyager, which weighed about 800 kilograms at launch. However, that’s still a huge amount of energy when antimatter—the likely “exotic matter” that would be used to produce the energy—costs tens of billions of dollars a gram to produce.

White said he is working on a “very humble experiment” in his lab to generate a “microscopic instance” of a warp bubble, perturbing spacetime by one part in ten million. “Nobody should get excited at this point. This is very ‘sciencey,’” he cautioned. “But sometimes an existence proof is very important. It’s an inflection point for mapping the idea to practicality,” likening it to the “Chicago Pile,” the first nuclear reactor built at the University of Chicago in 1942 that generated just half a watt of power, but demonstrated the feasibility of the concept. (Despite his cautionary language, this work was one of the mostly widely reported findings of the conference, morphing into headlines like “NASA working on faster-than-light drive capable of WARP TEN”.)

Warp drives and other modes of propulsion weren’t the only topics of discussion at the conference. Other sessions examined biological, social, and other issues, ranging from what role, if any, religion should play on a multigenerational starship to identifying potential destinations for such missions. That broad range of subjects also allowed the conference to look at other issues that might otherwise be overlooked, like this simple but important one: what will interstellar explorers wear?

Karl Aspelund, a professor at the University of Rhode Island who studies textiles, notes that the current approach to clothing on ISS missions—wearing clothes for several days, then disposing of them—won’t work on a decades-long mission to another world. “If we’re going to send ten people out there for 30 years, this is how much you need to pack,” he said, showing a rail car. Thus, any mission needs to know how to efficiently launder clothes as well as how to “recycle” clothes when they’re worn out.

There’s also the question of what people will want to wear over such an extended mission: “Can you really ask someone to dress in polos and khakis for 30 years?” That, he suggested, could open up even bigger questions of not just clothing but also culture. “We may need to rethink the idea of clothing altogether,” he suggested. “We might have to really reevaluate what constitutes being dressed or undressed.”

The 100-year starship’s next year

Overall, though, the conference presentations were a mixed bag. For every interesting or thought-provoking presentation on topics as disparate as propulsion or clothing, there were others that left something to be desired. One person talked about the importance of using video as outreach to the public—by showing a series of slides filled with text and reading them almost verbatim. (He later did show some sample videos.) Another claimed that a lunar base, Mars base, and interstellar mission could all be built for a total of $1.2 trillion, something he suggested could be funded by the activities of a giant corporate conglomerate, but offered few details about the source of those cost estimates.

Many of the conference attendees might be best classified as enthusiasts: people interested in the concept of developing a starship, but have, at most, only ideas for research topics. But then, one of the issues of the project overall is that there aren’t many people who think about interstellar travel on more than a causal basis. “I know I’m the only full-time starship physicist,” quipped Eric Davis of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Austin, who chaired the “Time-Distance Solutions” track of the conference, which included propulsion.

The challenge facing Jemison and her team is to build up an organization that can manage this effort. “We promised [DARPA] that we would build an organization that would be able to hang around successfully” and support this concept, Jemison said in an interview during the conference.

“You have a hundred years to make sure the capabilities exist if somebody wants to mount a mission. It’s not about us mounting a mission,” Jemison said. “We don’t know exactly how it’s going to happen, but we know that humans can do wonderful things.”

Part of the organization’s approach, she said, is public engagement; she emphasized throughout the conference the need to be open enough to allow anyone who might be interested to participate. Another focus will be on research, including prioritizing various research topics. “We’re going to look credibly on how to promote research, and we’re going to look in lots of different spheres,” she said. One plan includes developing a research institute called “The Way” to support this, but she offered few details about when the institute would be created and how it would be structured.

“We’re not going to be the ones that do all the research and all the technological development. We can’t be, we shouldn’t be, and I don’t want to be,” Jemison said. If someone else is doing key research, she suggested, there may be other ways for the organization to support or otherwise advocate for their research.

That work, while focused on the long-term goal of developing a starship, will also be looking for nearer-term spinoffs that can benefit life on Earth, something that DARPA itself emphasized when it started up the project last year (see “It’s not (just) about the starship”, The Space Review, June 20, 2011). “One of our fundamental requirements is that we look at and actively think about how to apply technology and knowledge that we gain from this to life on Earth today,” Jemison said in the conference’s opening session.

Aspelund, who said he had a “driveway moment” when he first heard about the 100 Year Starship effort on the radio in his car (“where I sat in the driveway and I couldn’t move because I had to hear” the rest of the story, he explained), also noted that studying clothing needs for interstellar missions could have applications on Earth. For example, more efficient means of laundering clothes in space could also reduce energy requirements and waste production associated with laundry on Earth. “Now you see why I got so excited in my driveway,” he said. “Researching the 100 Year Starship is really a prerequisite towards the research on the starship we’re travelling on right now.”

In the near term, Jemison said, the DARPA award carries with it some obligations to the agency, including a series of reports and organizational setup; this year’s symposium was also required under the award. “With $500K, you can’t hold people to too much,” she noted. A new web site for the organization will be up and running in the next several weeks as well.

Fundraising is another priority to sustain the effort after the DARPA award runs out. “Little by little we’ll be building stuff, stretching those pennies until we get big infusions of money,” she said.

Ultimately, Jemison suggested, it won’t be the organization itself that develops a starship in a century’s time. “You have a hundred years to make sure the capabilities exist if somebody wants to mount a mission. It’s not about us mounting a mission,” she said. “We don’t know exactly how it’s going to happen, but we know that humans can do wonderful things.”


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