Last weekend I attended the 100 Year Starship Study (100 YSS) public conference. Its three-day mission? To figure out what it will take for humanity to launch a starship 100 years from now.
Initiated* by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), 100 YSS was created by David Neyland, director of the Tactical Technology Office of DARPA, along with Pete Worden, director of NASA Ames Research Center. Having created said baby, it's now being put out for adoption. That's the DARPA way.
Now NASA's interest we can understand, but why DARPA?
Space has always been important to DARPA. In fact Eisenhower started DARPA (back then just ARPA) in direct response to Sputnik.
Is a starship germane to present-day DARPA? Not likely, but the approaches and solutions to the problems of biosystems, energy, food, long-duration missions, building durable organizations that can stay focused for more than an election, and so on...those are all problems that interest DARPA.
DARPA's also interested in the fringe benefits. The year 1969 hosted the first human mission to the moon and the first message sent over a blue-sky, military-driven kludge of a computer called ARPAnet.
Yup, these are the folks who invented the Internet. (And, no, Al Gore never claimed he invented it—that is a politico-urban myth. But it has made for a lot of good jokes.)
OK, that's the background. 100 YSS had 1300 registrants, over half of whom showed up (there were two other major space science conferences happening in the same time frame. There need to be more weekends in a year.)
Interestingly, I knew almost none of them. OK, I knew a fair number of the speakers, especially the nuts and bolts guys (and they were almost all guys). And, of course, pretty much all the SF authors. But, among the attendees, I saw hardly any faces I recognized. Not that I know everyone in the SF community, but I know a fair cross-section, especially among the core groups.
That is to say, this was not your usual sci-fi crowd.
There were way too many tracks of interesting papers to attend everything—two tracks on "time-distance solutions" (that nuts and bolts stuff); biology and space medicine; habitats; educational, social, legal and economic considerations; philosophical and religious considerations; destinations; and communications of the vision.
All in all, hundreds of papers were squeezed into two days. Drink, meet fire hose.
Fortunately, most presenters were required to submit written papers. I do not know if there will be a single printed proceedings, but JBIS (Journal of the British Interplanetary Society) will begin publishing them in issues starting early next year. Most, if not all the papers, and possibly the video of the sessions, will wind up on the Web. Details were still to be settled as of this writing.
It wasn't quite so difficult a set of choices—the were only five or six tracks operating simultaneously. Now, if only there had been four or five more of me. Having to make some hard decisions, I concentrated on the social science track. Personally, I see those as the tougher and, hence, more interesting problems.
In terms of mere hardware, I know how to build a starship—I don't know how to build an organization that can build, crew or run a starship. It is hard to create an organization that doesn't wander from its goals in a century. It is hard to create financial structures that operate with tens of trillions of dollars. There are similar problems associated with creating a viable population and culture on board the ship itself. Also, I don't know how to pay for all this.
These are the truly nontrivial problems.
To make this clearer, consider that, technologically, we could already have a permanent lunar base and Martian expeditions. We figured out how to tackle those projects three decades ago. The reasons they haven't happened aren't technological, they are human.
Hence, I concentrated my attention on these issues, addressed in the track organized and chaired by Dr. Mae Jemison. I made a wise choice; given an impossibly broad set of appallingly vague questions to address, Dr. Jemison handled it brilliantly. After selecting the several dozen papers to be presented out of hundreds of submissions, she organized them into a series of progressive sessions. Each built on the preceding ones, to create a kind of two-day, coherent, intensive course in the matter of establishing the starship enterprise (pun intended).
No conclusions were reached by the conference as a whole. No consensus was arrived at. That was not its function. It was to act as the seed, a place where as much of the best and most diverse thinking and analysis could come together to give us a clearer sense of the questions that would have to be answered, the problems (both human and technological) that would have to be dealt with and the organizations that would have to be built to do all of this.
That part is done. Now this goes back to the organizational arm of DARPA, which will issue a seed grant to some private entity to undertake the next level: starting to build the organizations that can tackle this way-beyond-enormous project (DARPA doesn't build stuff—it persuades other people to build stuff). Proposals are currently being solicited.
Now, what is my personal sense of it all (not even close to the wisest or most informed of the myriad opinions at the conference, just my own)? The odds that this first effort will succeed are not high, in my opinion. Simply, we are trying something too novel and huge to expect to get it right on the first try. Mistakes will be made, for we are human. But, while I do not expect success, I can certainly hope for it. This is not an impossible thing and perhaps the inevitable mistakes will merely prove inconvenient and inefficient, not fatal.
In which case, we will have spent the last weekend being part of the very beginning of the most monumental endeavor in human history.
I don't think we can live up to the title yet. With what we know how to build, I do not see how to construct and launch a successful starship mission in 100 years. It is just too expensive on every axis. Two hundred years, probably. Three hundred years, most certainly.
But with what we may know how to build in several decades, the odds improve. Few at the conference really think we have the right technological solutions for a century from now. That would be like asking the Wright brothers to map out the technology path to Apollo. Most of it would be wrong. We expect to be wrong. We think, though, we've figured out the right questions to ask and the means to answer them.
I am most cautiously optimistic.
*(no, not sponsored, so your tax dollars are safe)
Ctein's regular weekly column would appear on Wednesdays as usual, if Mike could get and keep his act together. —MJ
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Michael: "For most of my life I've thought that the really difficult and brainy stuff was the hard science (so doubly hard). This was the legacy of growing up in the Sputnik / National Defence Education Act era. I carried this fossilized idea around with me for many years until one day I realized that I no longer believed it. There is stuff even harder, and that is working with humans and their rapid unaccountable reactions off each other, happening all the time invisibly at the speed of thought. As against those problems, the engineering problems seem relaxingly manageable. I would have been right there beside you in the political/social/economic seminars. Thanks for this."