Gwynne Dyer: Building a starship for the next century

Never mind the constraints of the miserable present: the shrinking budgets, the lost opportunities, the collapsing morale. Thinking is free, so let’s think really big. Let’s think about...building a starship in the year 2112.

Well, I’ve already been thinking about that for decades, actually, but that was just wishful thinking. Now there’s a whole organization for thinking about it, with a proper budget and government support and participation by private enterprise, and from Thursday to Saturday (September 13 to 15) they’re holding a public conference in Houston, Texas: the first annual symposium of the 100 Year Starship Initiative.

The sessions have ambitious titles: “Time and Distance Solutions”; “The Mission: Human, Robotic or Reconstituted?”; “Destinations and Habitats”; “Becoming an Interstellar Civilization”.

But the organizers also realize that this project will take as long as building a Gothic cathedral: one session is simply called “Research Priorities for the First Ten of 100 Years”. Then they’ll have to set priorities for the next 10 years, and the next, and the next....

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency wanted to create an organization to foster “persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel possible". The winning proposal, by the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, declared that “100 Year Starship will unreservedly dedicate itself to identifying and pushing the radical leaps in knowledge and technology needed to achieve interstellar flight.”

The 100YSS, as it’s known, would probably not exist if the professionals interested in space flight had really challenging near-space projects to work on. They don’t: one American space scientist described the current American space program, and indeed those of its rivals elsewhere, as "trying to finish what we started in the 1960s". Low-orbit operations are vital, but they are not inspiring.

Some of these frustrated professionals work at NASA and the DARPA, so there is official support for thinking big. There’s not much money: DARPA gave the 100YSS only half-a-million dollars of seed money (out of its $3-billion budget), but then nobody is planning to build expensive hardware now. They just want to think about what kind of hardware (and software) would be needed to go to the stars.

If they want to go on thinking big thoughts for very long, of course, they’ll need more than half-a-million dollars, but the rest of the money will have to come from private enterprise. For the moment, that means mainly from the well-funded space companies founded by billionaire entrepreneurs who made their money in other new technologies, and now want to do something even more interesting.

So appoint a charismatic former astronaut to lead the organisation–Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space–and make sure that both private business and potential international partners feel comfortable with the approach. It’s a natural area for international cooperation: there are probably never going to be rival national starship programs. Add a truckload of ambition, a pinch of hard-nosed realism, and stir.

The first public outing for this enterprise is the symposium in Houston, and its popular appeal is obvious. It’s a heady thought that this may be where the future course of human history is set, and at this stage nobody has to deal with dreary things like budgets and project management.

The most outrageous concepts can be welcomed, examined, and pursued or rejected. But is there any realistic prospect that human beings could ever build a starship?

Nobody knows. As Douglas Adams’s seminal work, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, sagely observed: “Space...is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is.”

Building a starship would therefore require not just four or five generations of technological revolutions. It would also require the overturning, or at least the wholesale reinterpretation, of the laws of physics as currently understood.

Last time around, it took about five centuries, say from 1450 to 1950, to get through a comparable scale of change in technology and physics. But of course things move much faster now.

At any rate, it’s hard to see what harm the 100YSS could do, even if it never achieves its objective. If the history of space flight up to now is any guide, at the very least it would produce radically new technologies that have major positive impacts on human welfare. And if it actually succeeded... That would be the biggest deal in human history.

The most recent estimate is that there are about 30,000 planets suitable for our kind of life within 1,000 light years of here. Most observers assume that if a planet can support life, then it will almost certainly have life. It would be a great pity to miss out on all that because of a mere lack of ambition.

Comments (18) Add New Comment
scissorpaws
Their scale is off. This is like those guys in 1450 trying to figure out how they could break the sound barrier. This should be The 100 Year Interstellar Initiative. Then they could all watch "2001 A Space Odyssey" and figure out how all these things could be built over the next century. That big wheel space station and the little ships heading off for Saturn and Jupiter, Mercury. It's really just a matter of money. And for comparison the recent Democratic and Republican conventions cost $100 million each, taxpayer dollars. There's lots of money when the politicos feel it's for a good cause.
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Patrick2
The OLPC project aimed to produce an extremely low cost computer for children's education around the world. Also know as the $100 laptop, the first concept was for a PC powered with a hand crank.

Today, the computer itself doesn't stand out much from commercially available pads and netbooks. Partly because the OLPC was a model, an inspiration, a predecessor to all of those other inexpensive computers.

The OLPC was a success, even if not many units are out there. Its display technology, some of the low power innovations, even the inspiration are still there.
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Gregory Nicholls
Cme on, Gwynne, you usually make sense. Within a thousand light years of here? Is that all? So a spaceship, if it could travel at the speed of light, if it could do so with out killing the folks inside, would arrive at its destination in a thousand years. What if there was life there? If they had the technology they'd probably destroy the spaceship before they were contaminated by the alien bacteria.
How would the astronauts communicate with earth? When they are a mere hundred light years away, a signal would take a hundred years to get here. The reply would take a hundred years to get back.
There are so many reasons why spending vast amounts of money is a bad idea, even if the money comes from the private sector. (Hey, CEO's, why not pay your slave more money instead?)
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SPY vs SPY
How about a 100 year Earth Project instead.

Alternatively

Folks could get together and list all the problems we currently face and will face in the next 100 years, here on Earth.

Then we could start to discuss what really needs to be done and changed so that we call could actually all live descent lives 100 years from now.

Outer Space is the dream world we fantasise about, when we feel overwhelmed by our Earthly Problems.

Dreaming wont solve our problems, only cooperation, personal awareness and thoughtful action.

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Leone
Why not aspire to fix this planet AND search for others? Each activity might aid the other.
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Robert Potier
for spy vs spy. It is called the united nations and it spends a lot more money then 500k on that.
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AncasterMike
I'm with scissorpaws.

First you need to build some infrastructure and economy in near space. Mine the Moon and asteroids and build it outside of Earth's deep gravity well.

To break the light speed barrier, we need to wait for a guy smarter than Einstein, which might be a while.
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Sheeple
We have a 4 billion + years old spaceship called Earth lets fix that so that we have it for the next 4 billion years as habitable.

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A relevant quote

The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there's no good reason to go into space--each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.
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W D HART
INSANE
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BikerCK
Most truly good ideas sound a bit weird at the outset. It's the equivalent of making sure you have an off-site backup of critical data to run your business, or even keeping a copy of the house key somewhere in the backyard. We can put a bunch of smart people onboard, cruise the galaxy for a couple hundred years and come back when all the idiots have died off. Although we may have to take it back from a civilization of androids at that point, likely to greet us with all the hospitality of a old-timey farmer with a shotgun and the admonition to 'git off my land afore I fill yer belly with lead'.
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A relevant quote: SOURCE
Important: the source for the "relevant quote" is xkcd:

http://xkcd.com/893/

He deserves the credit.
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Sheeple
Most rational people would not oppose the design and planning to build a manned Spaceship for long term exploration.

I certainly do not oppose it however 100 years is not enough for a Star ship given the vast distances involved to get to other Star Systems not only within our Galaxy but outside as well.

My point was lets stabilize our current Space Ship Earth [ from Global Warming and other Pollution ] so that we can survive long enough to build a viable Star Ship.
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Pat Crowe
Writing Science Fiction now, Gwyn?
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Pat Crowe
Anyway we already know how this turns out.
We crew a Starship, our guys are hurtling through open space when an Oracle halts our ship and sends our Captain and the Captain of a Gorn ship to a deserted, habitable, asteroid and they fight in slow motion till the Gorn captain squeezes the shit out of our Captain or our Captain creates dynamite from the available elements and blows the Gorn Captain back to Alpha Centauri.
It's too dangerous up there.
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Wrye
Well, why not think a little bigger sometimes? We're all walking around with tricorders in our pockets, so why not have some fun speculating? For crying out loud, this isn't either/or. I think we can focus 99.99% of our attention on fixing earth's problems and still not have to scrap NASA in the process, no? Let's not forget, all the emissions standards, sociopolitical reforms and conservation in the world wont stop an asteroid on the wrong path.
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Rob McGregor
In 100 years there is a very good chance that EVERYBODY will want to go for this looong bus ride rather than stay here.

If we don't srart looking around we will be the next dinosaurs. And faster than most people seem to think.

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Sean
The "space race" has always been about earth-bound politics. The United States (not mankind) sent a man to the moon to beat the USSR, not to bring back rocks or seed technological innovation. The real bigness of space is probably a blessing to any other life out there: homosapiens would just exploit or destroy any life they came in contact with anyway. Kubrick's bone "murder weapon" in 2001 turns into a spaceship for good reason.
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