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Ride a starship? Not for a century

Click to watch "Long Conversation - Pete Worden Announces 100-Year Starship."

It turns out that the $1.1 million "Hundred Year Starship" project is a yearlong study for a multigenerational mission which is yet to be named ... and for which humans might need to be re-engineered.

Pete Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center, created a stir last month at a conference sponsored by the Long Now Foundation when he mentioned that the space agency was kicking in an extra $100,000 to the project, sponsored by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. (You can hear him talk about it in the video referenced above.) Worden also said he was trying to get billionaires to form a starship fund.

In an Oct. 28 news release, DARPA explained that the actual interstellar journey was a long, loooong way from taking off:

"Throughout history technical challenges have inspired generations to achieve scientific breakthroughs of lasting impact. Several decades ago, for instance, the race to the moon sparked a global excitement surrounding space exploration that persists to this day. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the NASA Ames Research Center have teamed together to take the first step in the next era of space exploration -- a journey between the stars.

"The 100-Year Starship study will examine the business model needed to develop and mature a technology portfolio enabling long-distance manned spaceflight a century from now. This goal will require sustained investments of intellectual and financial capital from a variety of sources. The yearlong study aims to develop a construct that will incentivize and facilitate private co-investment to ensure continuity of the lengthy technological time horizon needed.

"'The 100-Year Starship study is about more than building a spacecraft or any one specific technology,' said Paul Eremenko, DARPA coordinator for the study. 'We endeavor to excite several generations to commit to the research and development of breakthrough technologies and cross-cutting innovations across a myriad of disciplines such as physics, mathematics, biology, economics, and psychological, social, political and cultural sciences, as well as the full range of engineering disciplines to advance the goal of long-distance space travel, but also to benefit mankind.'

"DARPA also anticipates that the advancements achieved by such technologies will have substantial relevance to Department of Defense (DoD) mission areas including propulsion, energy storage, biology/life support, computing, structures, navigation, and others. Beyond the DoD and NASA, these investments will reinvigorate private entrepreneurs, the engineering and scientific community, and the world’s youth in a bold quest for the stars.

"The 100-Year Starship study looks to develop the business case for an enduring organization designed to incentivize breakthrough technologies enabling future spaceflight."

Now I know what some of you are probably thinking: Maybe, just maybe, you'll still be around in 2110 to take off for Alpha Centauri, thanks to the kinds of advances in medicine, electronics and nanotechnology that futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted. There are several caveats to keep in mind:

  • First, it could take longer than a century to develop the technologies required for interstellar flight. Marc Millis, head of the Tau Zero Foundation, reported last month that the current ballpark estimate is 200 years.
  • Second, just because the technology exists to go somewhere, that doesn't mean anyone will actually go. For example, today we have a "technology portfolio" that would allow for trips to the moon -- but the money and the political backing for such trips are lacking. (That's where the billionaires come into the picture.)
  • Third, it might take a particular kind of custom-built human to deal with the rigors of ultra-long-distance spaceflight. At a weekend conference conducted at Ames Research Center, genomics pioneer Craig Venter suggested that future astronauts could be selected on the basis of genetic fitness -- for example, genes that are linked to better-than-normal DNA repair or bone-mass retention.

Even the microbes living inside a spaceship -- or inside an astronaut's gut -- could be re-engineered to reduce body odor, or facilitate digestion, or wipe out dental disease. Other types of microbes could be custom-made to produce food or fuel for the trip. And eventually, the astronauts themselves might be re-engineered to weather the worst that the space environment can throw at them.

NASA

An artist's conception shows a Project Orion spaceship, powered by a nuclear pulse propulsion system that its designers said could send the craft to other star systems. The concept ran afoul due to concerns about fallout.

Venter cited the example of Deinococcus radiodurans, a radiation-hardened microbe so tough some scientists think it came from Mars. Space.com's Mike Wall quotes Venter as saying he hasn't had much luck tweaking the microbe's genome so far, but he's keeping hope alive.

"We're trying to apply these tools in a wide variety of areas, but we're just in the early stages," Venter said.

What do you think about re-engineering genes for multigenerational space missions? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.


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