Icarus starship

Starship concept courtesy of Project Icarus. Image: Adrian Mann.

One of the things government can do more effectively than private enterprise is foster development of technologies that may not be profitable in the short term, if at all. Projects like the Internet and the Moon landing couldn’t have gotten off the ground with private investment alone.

But what’s the best way to fund really long-range technology development, say, something that will take on the order of 100 years just to figure out how to tackle?

That’s one of the questions DARPA asks with the 100 Year Starship project. The conference of the same name is winding down here at the Hilton Orlando, and the answer, like every other aspect of this hardest-of-all challenge for DARPA, is still subject to debate. One idea, suggested to me by Wired magazine cofounder and technology thinker Kevin Kelly, is to found a new religion with the project at hand as its guiding light.

The best way to go about actually building a starship did begin to emerge over the last couple of days. There are some differences of opinion among these best and brightest minds brought to bear on the problem here, of course, but here’s what I’ve taken as the surest path:

1: Reduce the problem to its most manageable form. We need to take fragile, easily bored, high maintenance humans out of the equation, said aerospace engineer and Planetary Society director Louis Friedman. Instead, we should send the smallest, simplest vehicle possible with programable microbes on board to do the work that people would have done once they arrive.

2: Develop a solar system wide industrial infrastructure. Philip Metzger, research physicist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, advocated sending autonomous self-replicating machines into the asteroids, the moon, and elsewhere in our own solar system to mine for the raw materials needed to build and launch a starship. That process alone could take 100 years.

3. Develop non-chemical propulsion systems. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and their Apollo colleagues got to the Moon with chemical rockets. No humans have ever gone faster, but it would have taken them tens of thousands of years to get to even the nearest stars. Instead, we’ll need nuclear, antimatter, or beam-powered vehicles. Each has its unique challenges, but it looks like antimatter is destined to remain science fiction longer than the others. I like beam power myself, in which a laser (putting out more power than currently used by all of humanity) is shot at a light sail a good percentage of the size of Texas to propel the starship.

As for why humanity would want to do this extraordinarily difficult and expensive mission at all, Jill Tarter, director of the SETI Institute, said that she believes the only compelling motivation will be the discovery of life orbiting another star.

See my previous post on the 100 Year Starship project for some background on why on Earth (or off it) DARPA has taken on such a project. See also my conference coverage and some perspective on just how hard this problem is at popularmechanics.com.