Space enthusiasts will no doubt rejoice at the news that the wealthiest and most powerful organisation yet assembled by the human race – to wit, the US government – reports early progress in its plan to build an interstellar starship capable of carrying people to other star systems than our own.
Enthusiasts may be less pleased to hear that the starship project has a fairly relaxed 2100AD deadline to get itself in gear. Also, this is not a sort of lackadaisical version of President Kennedy's famous 1961 promise to land a man on the moon "before this decade is out" – a promise which the American space programme kept for him, though he died only two years later.
No, the goal of the US government's "100-Year Starship" project – we are told in an official statement released yesterday – is to hand the task of actually organising, funding and building the eventual starship to someone else as the United States itself doesn't think it has the energy and resolution to do the job.
“Looking at history, most significant exploration, like crossing oceans or continents for the first time, was sponsored by patrons or groups outside of government," says David Neyland, top boffin in charge of the project. "We’re here because we’d like to start with a mechanism that gets this long-range project out of the government, and make sure it is an energized and self-sustaining enterprise.”
As we suspected when the 100-Year Starship plan was first announced, the idea seems to be that interstellar exploration will require the creation of some new kind of organisation able to somehow seize and focus a major fraction of humanity's resources over a long period of time.
Naturally there is a science-fiction example: Robert A Heinlein's miracle non-profit organisation the Long Range Foundation in Time for the Stars, which becomes fantastically wealthy through investing in long-term but high payoff enterprises such as weather control. The Foundation then pours this money into interstellar "torch ships".
Yesterday's statement (pdf) from the 100-Year Starship project was to announce completion of an initial workshop to get the ball rolling. It's no surprise to note that "the workshop brought together 29 visionaries with diverse backgrounds from aerospace engineer to science fiction author".
At this point in the process, the sci-fi scribe was probably rather more useful than the engineer.
The 100-Year Starship project is run by famous Pentagon crazytech bureau DARPA, partnered with NASA – who presumably at some point in the next couple of decades need to hand off to the as-yet-unnamed real world Long Range Foundation. ®
"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