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Billionaires wanted for starship plan

For some billionaires, space travel is a cause worth big bucks. The examples range from Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson, who's putting together what's likely to be the first suborbital spaceline, to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who is backing the publicity-shy Blue Origin space venture (and benefiting from NASA funding).

But how far are deep-pocketed space fans willing to go? Pete Worden, the director of NASA's Ames Research Center, recently hinted that billionaires are being recruited to kick in contributions for a deep-space mission known as "the Hundred Year Starship." The idea builds on the long-discussed concept of sending people on one-way missions to space destinations, in hopes of jump-starting colonization of the final frontier.

Worden is quoted as saying NASA has already committed $100,000 to the project, with the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency providing another $1 million in funding. His comments, made at the Long Now Foundation's "Long Conversation" event on Oct. 16 in San Francisco, were reported by KurzweilAI's Amara D. Angelica.

Worden said NASA and DARPA have "just started" the project. "We also hope to inveigle some billionaires to form a Hundred Year Starship fund," he was quoted as saying.

"The human space program is now really aimed at settling other worlds," he said. "Twenty years ago, you had to whisper that in dark bars and get fired."

Actually, quite a few people have been talking about the idea, although deep-space colonization has not previously been mentioned as part of NASA's official space vision. Two researchers discussed the options for one-way trips to Mars this month in the Journal of Cosmology, and at this month's International Astronautical Congress in Prague, experts reviewed the possibilities for interstellar trips.

Worden said he has discussed the potential price tag for one-way trips to Mars with Google co-founder Larry Page, telling him such a mission could be done for $10 billion. "His response was, 'Can you get it down to $1 [billion] or $2 billion?' So now we're starting to get a little argument over the price," Angelica quoted Worden as saying.

When it comes to sending colonists to other planetary systems, Page and his fellow billionaires shouldn't expect a quick return on their investment. "If we expect to be sending hundreds of people out to colonize another planet, we're really talking about something that's going to take 100 years or more to really make happen effectively," Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, said on MSNBC today.

Click on the video above to hear the whole discussion, then add your comments below.

Update for 3:30 p.m. ET Oct. 27: The Tau Zero Foundation was established to support private initiatives on interstellar flight. Last week the head of the foundation, former NASA researcher Marc Millis, wrote an exclusive piece for msnbc.com on the progress being made toward missions beyond our solar system. Here are Millis' thoughts on the "Billionaires Wanted" announcement:

"I was surprised to see the announcement.  I just left NASA due in large part to the indifference within NASA toward anything beyond the von Braun visions, including advanced propulsion research and interstellar missions.  That work was active in the late 1990s, but got 'differed' (the euphemism at the time for 'canceled') around 2003.  With my retirement, I'm devoting more time now to our Tau Zero Foundation for research and education toward interstellar flight that has more operating flexibility than when I was at NASA.

"That this announcement came from Pete Worden, however, was less surprising, since he has been getting Ames to delve into all sorts of interesting things beyond NASA's 'business as usual.'  Their dealings with Google is one example.  Singularity University is another.

"Supporting the 2009 International Space University Summer Session is yet another, especially considering how such things were viewed within's NASA culture during and after the Dan Goldin years.

"I recall discussions from our own NASA Glenn management to the effect that 'we can't do that (novel working relations and ISU support) and don't know how Worden's doing it."  I applaud Pete Worden for being able to embark on such novel approaches, especially realizing the difficulty of doing so in the NASA culture.

"That said, I was confused as to why DARPA would be interested in star flight, why they would turn to Worden for such a thing, and why the technology cited as an example of relevance was only 'microwave thermal propulsion.' I did not recognize the names of the cited experts as the ones that I know who work on that topic (such as Frank Mead, Jim Benford, etc.) That idea has been around for a long while and is not really at the top of the list for 'interstellar' approaches.  It is surprising to see these new folks as the focal point.

"Regarding the level of DARPA support, $1 million might sound like a lot to the layman, but it's really only enough for one focused task or a handful of smaller research tasks.  That is not much in the grand scheme of things.  Also, NASA contribution of $100K is enough for about a half-year of labor.  For NASA in such lean times, that is actually a modest overture to the topic.

"For a comparison, during my years with the NASA Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project (1996-2002), we were able to leverage around $1.6 million in total spread over seven years to assess about a dozen approaches, produce 16 peer-reviewed articles. Then, using volunteers and discretionary time thereafter, we managed to compile the book 'Frontiers of Propulsion Science.' It felt really good to accomplish that.

"But the part of the news that really threw me for a loop was for Worden, as a NASA official, to suggest philanthropic support.  I was not allowed to do that as NASA.

"That's a great idea -- in fact, that is precisely what my Tau Zero Foundation is trying to do.  We're taking the approach of first building a repertoire of progress to demonstrate that we can indeed take on the challenge.  I want the people who donate to know that their funds go to the folks who can make real progress. I'm proud of all the progress that our volunteers have been making in that regard.

"I really should compile a list of all the publications resulting from their work (add to the to-do list).

"If, and when, billionaire philanthropists do want to contribute toward star flight, I hope they shop around first."

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