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Daedalus illustration
Interstellar mission concepts are not new, such as the Daedalus study by the British Interplanetary Society in the 1970s, but the 100-Year Starship effort has the support, and initial financial backing, of DARPA and NASA. (credit: Adrian Mann/BIS)

It’s not (just) about the starship

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Spaceflight today faces a dizzying array of challenges. Government programs have to find ways to do more with less funding. Commercial efforts, particularly new entrepreneurial ventures, try to close their business cases while seeking to raise funding and develop their vehicles or spacecraft. Major obstacles to greater exploration and exploitation of space, notably the price and reliability of space access, are as high today as they have been in previous decades. In that environment, it seems like there wouldn’t be much time or interest to think about interstellar travel.

Responses to the 100-year Starship RFI, says DARPA’s Neyland, ranged from “very, very solid” responses to others “wrote in and said, ‘This is an incredible idea and I’m raising my hand to have a position on the crew of the starship.’”

And yet, that’s what the US government is doing, although on a very small—and nontraditional—scale. Last year the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), the office of the Defense Department that funds high-risk, high-payoff research, announced that it was working with NASA to study what technologies would be needed to mount a human interstellar mission in a century and how to best develop that technology. “The 100-Year Starship study,” stated a DARPA press release last October announcing the project, “will examine the business model needed to develop and mature a technology portfolio enabling long-distance manned space flight a century from now.”

A name like “100-Year Starship” is bound to attract a lot of attention, and it did last October not because of the press release, but by comments made earlier that month by Pete Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, at a forum in San Francisco organized by the Long Now Foundation. When futurist Peter Schwartz noted that the solar system “isn’t really very interesting” for human settlement, Worden said that NASA had just started the 100-Year Starship project with DARPA: “We’re going to try and set up little mini-grants, set up a program, that will begin to invest in the technologies that will get us, in 100 years, a starship.” He added, “We’re hoping to inveigle certain billionaires to form a 100-Year Starship Fund,” which provoked an excited “Yes yes yes!” from Schwartz.

Those comments generated considerable attention—and not a little skepticism about the utility of such an effort—as they made their way from the blogosphere to mainstream media last fall. That attention died away (a starship is only so interesting when you find out that it’s 100 years in the future, apparently) and until recently the project has been operating under a low profile. In January the study convened a two-day invitation-only meeting to examine issues associated with such an effort (see “Fly me to the stars”, The Space Review, January 24, 2011), ranging from the rationales for human space exploration to how to manage a multigenerational effort, according to a synopsis of the meeting recently published by DARPA. “The workshop concluded with unanimous acknowledgement that many unanswered questions remain and a great deal of work lies ahead,” the synopsis stated.

Since then DARPA has gradually been raising the profile of the study. Last month it issued a request for information (RFI) focused specifically on how to structure such a long-term effort. The deadline for RFI responses was June 3, and DARPA received over 150 submissions, said David Neyland, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, in a media teleconference on June 16.

“I will tell you quite honestly that they were from one end of the spectrum to another,” he said of the RFI responses. Some were “very, very solid” responses discussing the issues that would go into such an effort, he said, while others “wrote in and said, ‘This is an incredible idea and I’m raising my hand to have a position on the crew of the starship.’”

The RFI responses—at least the ones not involving people volunteering to join the starship crew—will feed into a request for proposals (RFP) DARPA will issue later this summer. That RFP will be for an approximately $500,000 grant to set up an organization that would run the effort over the long haul.

The grant, said Neyland last week, is intended to be seed money to allow the winning organization to start up their efforts and identify other sources of funding to support its work. “It’s just to get the lights on, so that they can get footing to go out and start the cycle” of bringing in funding to support research that can be spun off, he said, allowing them eventually to become self-supporting. One of the biggest debates about this approach, he said, is whether is the organization should be a for-profit company or a not-for-profit entity; DARPA is open to both approaches.

“It’s just to get the lights on, so that they can get footing to go out and start the cycle” of bringing in funding to support research, Neyland said of the $500,000 in grant money to be awarded.

In parallel with the RFP, DARPA will also be hosting a 100 Year Starship Study Symposium in Orlando from September 30 to October 2. The purpose of the event, which DARPA expects to attract as many as 2,000 participants, is to discuss a broad range of issues associated with such an effort, from propulsion technologies for a starship to space medicine to legal and philosophical issues. The symposium will also be a chance for organizations responding to the RFP to provide DARPA with their “best and final offer”, with submissions due in mid October.

Neyland said that DARPA and NASA plan to select a winning proposal by November 11—11/11/11—at which point their participation in the 100-Year Starship Study will end. “We’re going to provide a grant to an entity and that entity is going to carry the ball forward for us,” he said, adding that there was a “finite possibility” they would not award a grant at all, if none of the proposals appeared viable to the agencies.

Still, in an era of increasing fiscal conservatism, why spend any money, even about $1 million (provided mostly by DARPA) for something that won’t have a payoff for 100 years, or even longer? Neyland made it clear that they do anticipate some shorter-term payoffs in the form of technologies developed to support that long-term goal that have applications for spaceflight, defense, or elsewhere.

“What we want to do is to seed technology research and development so that we solve problems along the way that ultimately give you a capability 100 years from now to do something like a starship, but along that way have all sorts of ancillary payoffs,” Neyland said.

“How do you create an environment where the investments have a long-term goal, but also have ancillary benefits both to the Department of Defense and to NASA?” asked Neyland.

That near-term technology payoff is one of the reasons DARPA settled on a human interstellar mission as the long-term goal, not a robotic mission. “The problem set you have to solve for a manned mission is significantly larger than it is to do a robotic mission,” he said. “The part that pays off for the DOD is solving the types of problems… that relate back to human operations in austere locations. So if you go back to why we want to do it, it’s the payoff that comes back to the Department of Defense. Building a robotic probe to go beyond Pluto doesn’t address enough of the problems that actually helps me on the Department of Defense side.”

Neyland said that he hopes the unusual nature of this challenge will attract the attention of people who might not otherwise be interested in a DARPA project. “We want to capture the imagination of folks who wouldn’t necessarily be thinking about coming into research and development, and tag them with something they specifically think twice about,” he said. “How do you create an environment where the investments have a long-term goal, but also have ancillary benefits both to the Department of Defense and to NASA?”

Moreover, the idea of working on a starship project—even one a century in the future—has a certain science fiction cachet that can attract other nontraditional talent. Neyland said he was inspired in part by the Long Range Foundation, an organization in Robert Heinlein’s novel Time for the Stars that funded long-term projects others would not, like starships. “It’s a tribute to Robert Heinlein, if anything, at this point,” he said.

There’s no guarantee that that this effort will lead to a starship in 100 years, or ever. Neyland noted that once the winning organization has a grant, it will be free to pursue the technologies they deem most relevant, which opens the possibility that down the road, be it five years or ten or twenty-five, it could shift focus entirely away from a starship to something else. Keeping a century-long focus in an era where many don’t think beyond the next election or the next quarterly earnings report may be a far greater challenge than the technology that can enable flight to the stars.