100 Year Starship logoIt’s perhaps DARPA’s most out-there project ever: spend the next century figuring out how to build a starship.

Science fiction makes it seem easy: just engage the warp drive, do a little hand waving about Johnson rods or somesuch, and make a hyperspace jump.

The reality will be vastly more difficult. Later this month, DARPA will convene scientists, engineers, big thinkers, and even science fiction writers (one of them, Joe Haldeman, was an instructor of mine at the Clarion West Writers Workshop) at the Orlando Hilton to help get the 100 Year Starship project started.

Step on: lay out the basics of what kinds of propulsion to consider, where to go, and how to survive what is likely to be a multigenerational journey.

DARPA is kicking in half a million dollars to get the project started with NASA’s Ames Research Center as a partner. But after that, a private entity is to take over. DARPA will help the new venture along for two years, and then hand over the keys for the next 98 years.

The obvious question is, what’s in it for DARPA, the US military’s fringe R&D department. From the solicitation inviting organizations to submit proposals for running the program after DARPA hands it off:

“In attempting to achieve major endeavors, such as the first flight to the moon, mankind has pushed the boundaries of what’s possible technically. In addition to yielding a long-term impact, it typically has very real near-term benefits. Space programs and related investments to date have resulted in benefits as far flung as improving water purification processes to better data communications protocols to enhancing breast cancer detection. The technologies developed as part of the 100YSS undertaking will have very direct impact here on earth, including benefitting DARPA’s principal customer—the American warfighter.”

With this project, DARPA asks the questions:

“What if, then, we imagine ourselves, one hundred years from now, going to the nearest stars? What if we commit ourselves to spending the next century tackling the key technological, socio-political, and economic problems that stand in the way? What if we strive to inspire the next five generations—and rekindle the human spirit of exploration, discovery, and wonder? What are the means by which we realize this vision?”

Now that’s looking up! I’ll be covering the 100 Year Starship Symposium as it happens September 30 to October 2. Watch this space and also popularmechanics.com.