Those like us here on the Reg astronautical desk who are occasionally a bit disappointed at the limited scope of humanity's space programmes may be overjoyed to learn that NASA has just begun work on an actual interstellar starship. Well, kind of.
The news comes in a recent US government statement outlining the so-called "100-Year Starship study", in which NASA's Ames Research Center will participate. The statement says:
The 100-Year Starship study will examine the business model needed to develop and mature a technology portfolio enabling long-distance manned space flight a century from now. This goal will require sustained investments of intellectual and financial capital from a variety of sources. The year-long study aims to develop a construct that will incentivize and facilitate private co-investment to ensure continuity of the lengthy technological time horizon needed...
The 100-Year Starship study looks to develop the business case for an enduring organization designed to incentivize breakthrough technologies enabling future spaceflight.
So in fact NASA isn't working on an actual ship as such, but rather on a "construct" or "enduring organisation" of some kind which would be able somehow to raise the enormous funds required to build a starship during the next century.
“The 100-Year Starship study is about more than building a spacecraft or any one specific technology,” says Paul Eremenko, official coordinating the effort. “We endeavor to excite several generations to commit to the research and development of breakthrough technologies and cross-cutting innovations across a myriad of disciplines such as physics, mathematics, biology, economics, and psychological, social, political and cultural sciences, as well as the full range of engineering disciplines to advance the goal of long-distance space travel, but also to benefit mankind.”
It would seem that someone has been re-reading Robert Heinlein's classic Time for the Stars, in which a non-profit organisation called the Long Range Foundation exists in the future for the purpose of funding expensive projects with no short-term payoff.
Having become fantastically rich through developing such things as weather control, the Foundation in the story builds and sends out "torch ships" - propelled by converting matter into energy with high efficiency - on near-light-speed voyages to nearby stars. Though the journeys take many years of objective time, the effects of relativity aboard the ships mean that their crews experience only a few years' duration and remain young even after decades have passed back on Earth. The discoveries of the ships are communicated back to Earth using specially selected pairs of twins who are linked telepathically.
Apart from the matter-to-energy technology of the torch and the telepathic twins, one of the most unrealistic elements of the book is the Long Range Foundation itself. No human organisation has yet appeared with both the financial clout and the long-term commitment that would appear necessary to get humanity out among the stars. Developing such a "construct" and its underlying business case would seem a challenge perhaps as great in its way as the building of the actual ships, and potentially just as likely to fail.
It's probably no surprise, then, to find that NASA Ames' partner organisation in the 100-Year Starship study is none other than our old chum DARPA - the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - which won't even look at a project unless it's "DARPA hard" - ie so hard as to be well-nigh impossible. Eremenko actually works at DARPA rather than NASA: when not pondering generational efforts aimed at interstellar travel he also minds the System F6 swarm-sat project, a plan for cunning "cyber-physical" flexi-manufacture of advanced weapon systems and a relatively dull next-gen supertank scheme.
Let's hope that he and his fellow brains at NASA are successful in thinking up a crafty new gesellschaft of some kind, one able to hoover up a significant fraction of the human race's resources and direct them into getting us out into the vast universe around us before it's too late - before the fragile flower of Earthly technological civilisation is inevitably snuffed out or wilts on its own. ®
If man survives for as long as the least successful of the dinosaurs — those creatures whom we often deride as nature's failures — then we may be certain of this: for all but a vanishingly brief instant near the dawn of history, the word 'ship' will mean— 'spaceship.'
- Arthur C Clarke
Also - apologies for being a little slow on picking up the DARPA release (pdf). The inexplicable decision to title it "DARPA/NASA Seek to Inspire Multigenerational Research and Development" - rather than "DARPA/NASA team on INTERSTELLAR MISSION" or something sensible - meant that it slipped under our radar rather.