This week's column by Ctein
I know I've been neglecting my off-topic obligations (if they can be called such). Just too much good photographica to write about. Finally, here's another one (and there'll be a second part in two weeks). For thems of you whats hates these, come back next week for more of my photobabble.
Last September, Houston was the site of the first "private" 100 Year Starship (100YSS) conference. The previous year's 100 Year Starship conference was a DARPA-initiated government conference. You can read my report on it. This year's conference was the first hosted by the 100YSS Foundation, established with a DARPA grant of $500,000 after last year's confab. The reason for the quote marks around "private" is that anybody could attend; you merely had to pay the conference fee.
As I explained previously, DARPA doesn't build stuff. They spark interesting and innovative endeavors and then they throw a little money at private entities to kickstart the thing. Their interests are national security and defense, staying ahead of the rest of the world's technology curve. Forty-something years ago, they envisioned it might be useful for the Defense Department to have a robust and distributed communications network in case war broke out. The result was something called ARPANET. Ever heard of it?*
The 100 Year Starship is considerably more ambitious. Its goal is, over the next century, to either build and launch a starship or to establish the technological, industrial, managerial and economic base that would be capable of doing so. DARPA doesn't especially want or need a starship. The myriad instrumentalities and technologies required to build such an amazing endeavor, though, would transform U.S. science, production, and manufacturing even more radically than the Moon Race did.
Unfortunately, the path to the stars is much longer and much less clearly defined than that to the Moon. I truly cannot speak for all 250 attendees, a substantial fraction of whom were at the first year's DARPA conference, but my sense of it is that the consensus feels similarly: we all hope this venture will succeed, and we all expect this first attempt won't. There are too many ways it can go wrong, too many mistakes that can be made. It would require great luck for none of them to prove fatal to the enterprise. But, one has to start somewhere, and the objective is to learn enough so that if the 100YSS fails to achieve its goal, the next attempt will fare better.
Which still leaves the problem, how do you do this? More specifically, at this early stage, how do you build an organization that could attempt to do this?
I'm sure that's the problem DARPA faced when they looked over the request-for-funding proposals from last year's conference. I heard that there were close to three dozen submissions. Among the half-dozen top ones, I doubt there was a single one that wasn't worthy of funding. They ranged from "let's start cutting metal tomorrow" (only a modest exaggeration) to "the problems are still so ill-defined that we shouldn't jump into anything."
DARPA decided to go the latter route and awarded the grant to the proposal from Dr. Mae Jemison (see my previous column) and The Jemison Group. In six months they managed to go from getting the grant to pulling off a major conference. I know a little something about throwing conferences. When you're running that fast there will be problems, and there were a few, but it gets a solid B+. These people are very good at moving fast. Not so incidentally, the 2013 conference will be held in Houston this September. I plan to be there.
What did this first conference accomplish? Well, now, that's an interesting question. Content-wise, very little. That has some people frustrated (especially the cut-metal set). My take on it is that this event was mostly about process—setting up the sociological constraints and boundary conditions that would facilitate getting to concrete answers down the road. (Most interestingly, I realized that this conference bore substantial similarities to a project I was involved in over 40 years ago. More on that next time.)
I'm not privy to the inner workings of the 100YSS Foundation or their agenda. Three process goals, though, were clear to me. The first was to create an intellectual "big tent." When you aren't sure what the right approach to a problem is, you don't want to be rejecting possibilities and talents out of hand. You never know what you'll need later. You explore as many avenues as possible, in parallel, and try to avoid tossing any out prematurely, just because one seems most promising at the moment.
Sounds good in principle. In practice it can be dicey. For one thing, most people need focus to accomplish anything. If the immediate problems and goals seem impossibly diffuse, it's difficult to get anywhere. It can also lead to mission creep, where the goal perpetually mutates in ways that have people spinning their wheels, or leads them down a garden path they never meant to follow.
It's also frustrating to the people who have a clear idea in mind of how the problem should be solved (whether or not they have the best answer). They want to get moving on a solution and tend to be impatient waiting for the Big Plan to jell. Entirely understandable, unfortunately. You have to figure out ways to keep those people happy so they don't leave in frustration.
In fact, several autonomous subgroups spontaneously appeared from within the conference attendees—like-minded people who are trying to pursue their more immediate goals without having to wait for the entire operation to arrive at consensus. I have this suspicion that the Foundation expected that to happen. As I said, a big tent.
You're also at risk of infiltration by nutters and crackpots, and you want to make sure they can't hijack the agenda or appear to be representative of the group. We had just a couple of those. I would say that most of the people at the conference, though, were a lot like me: smart, educated, with a hard head and a practical mind, and open to new ideas...but with large bullshit filters. It's harder to hijack a group like that. Still, it's a possibility that I'm sure the Foundation is wrestling with, because circumstances can change, and dealing with this potential problem is a complicated process issue.
None of which is to say that the "big tent" is the wrong approach. Personally, I think it's the only one that has a chance of working at the present time. That doesn't mean it isn't fraught with peril. We'll see how well it works out.
The second goal? I'll get to that in the second part of this column, in two weeks. A hint—when I said the people were a lot like me? In some very important ways, I lied. Ah, the anticipation....
©2013 by Ctein, all rights reserved
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Hugh Crawford: "The Ownership, Legal, and Governance part is the most interesting. It sure won't be capitalism as we know it."
John Camp: "I find the concept fascinating, as much for the management problems as for the actual development of a starship. Cutting metal at this point seems absurd, when you don't even know who or what would go to another star. To send off a crippled mission in ten years that wouldn't even be able to report back before it was obsolete seems foolish. (For example, you have to decide exactly what you'd want such a mission to return in the way of results—but the earth-orbit astronomical telescopes are now returning such a wealth of new information that it would seem to me most profitable to try to expand their capabilities, and in x number of years you might be able to find out much of the information that you'd get from an actual probe. I mean, do we really want to spend trillions to send a starship out to a place if it reports back in two hundred years that the target planet is another Mars? In other words, close, but no cigar?)
"It's a great thought problem, though, and would take excellent management just to catalog the relevant thoughts.
"But—$500,000 is trivial. In fact, it's so trivial, that I suspect most of it will be wasted. $500,000 per year might get something done, but not much—that might buy you a three or four-person staff. What we need to do is get rich SF writers, and there are at least a couple of dozen of those, to kick in a tax-deductible 5% of their income to a starship fund...."