More details have emerged on the US government's plan to build a spacecraft capable of "a journey between the stars". Astoundingly, it is expected that this can be achieved with no more than "several hundred thousand dollars" of government funding.
This is because the idea is that the starship will not, in fact, be built or funded by the US government – nor any other. Even the mighty USA, goes the reasoning, could never muster the necessary levels of investment and focus over many decades which would be required by such a project.
Rather, the idea is to set up some new kind of organisation, potentially far wealthier, more powerful and more focused on the goal of interstellar flight than any national government could possibly be. The envisioned sub-$1m from the US treasury would be no more than seed money for this mighty organisation, whose structure and methods remain unknown as yet.
As we've noted on these pages before, it seems plain that someone has been reading Robert Heinlein's classic scientifiction* novel Time for the Stars. In the tale there is a miracle non-profit outfit in the future known as the Long Range Foundation which becomes colossally rich by investing in long-term but high-payoff projects such as weather control. It then ploughs its vast revenues into building relativistic "torch ships" able to travel to nearby stars at close to the speed of light (the journeys thus take decades from the point of view of people remaining on Earth, but time is compressed aboard the ships and the crews age by only a few years).
The ships not only carry the first human explorers to other suns, but accidentally discover new physics permitting the development of proper faster-than-light starships: these overhaul the torch ships and so bring their crews home at last.
The nascent US government-spawned Long Range Foundation-a-like project has been dubbed "100 Year Starship", referring to the notional time it might take to get the first interstellar mission underway. The organisation is expected to swiftly become "wholly devoid of government subsidy or control", but until that happens it is being run by – of course – Pentagon crazytech agency DARPA and NASA's famous Ames campus in Silicon Valley.
There may be some initial difficulties in breaking free of the shackles of state control. We are officially warned that:
"100 Year Starship" and "100YSS" are property of the United States, trademark applications pending at the US Patent and Trademark Office.
If you have some ideas on how to set up an organisation capable of somehow acquiring control of a significant fraction of the human race's resources (or hugely increasing the human race's resources and getting control of a smaller proportion of them, or whatever) and focusing this wherewithal on building a starship, head on over to the 100 Year Starship™ website.
Bear in mind that unmanned probes aren't what are sought here: the idea is to "definitively transform mankind into a space-faring species".
It's a laudable goal, and one required for the long-term survival of the human race: it would require only a relatively minor astronomical event to cleanse the solar system of life, and something more piddling still like an asteroid or a comet will surely destroy human civilisation in the foreseeable future if it continues along its present Earthbound lines.
Nonetheless, as usual with DARPA, 100YSS™ looks like a long shot. If a few hundred grand and a website could kick off a self-sustaining process within the human race that would lead to starships in a century, one rather has to paraphrase Enrico Fermi on the matter of aliens and ask: Why isn't such a process already under way?
Perhaps it is, of course. Some might argue that the private rocket firm SpaceX – whose founder's avowed goal is a self-sustaining human colony on Mars – is already well down the road that DARPA and NASA have barely set boot to. Other ventures such as Bigelow Aerospace with its spacegoing bubble habitats have much more funding than 100YSS™, and even the notional Project Icarus has a better website.
Let's hope that the DARPA and NASA boffins are right on the matter of such a process being possible, even if it may not be started off by them. They're surely right to suggest that traditional enterprise mechanisms are unlikely to get humanity out among the stars at all soon: and thus that the human race is probably doomed in the long run unless something new happens. ®
*That was just for all you moaners who don't like the label "sci-fi".
"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