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Skipper chosen for starship effort

From April 15, 2010: Former astronaut Mae Jemison tells MSNBC she believes President Barack Obama's plans for NASA will help the agency move forward. Jemison is to lead the "100 Year Starship" effort.

The Pentagon's think tank has selected the group that will manage its "100 Year Starship" project to explore what it would take for a multigenerational mission beyond the solar system, and sources say the leader will be Mae Jemison, who became the first black woman in space in 1992.

In the 20 years since then, Jemison has founded several ventures — including The Jemison Group, a technology design and consulting company; and the Houston-based Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, which takes on educational projects. Jemison, a 55-year-old Alabama native who has experience as a physician and a Peace Corps worker as well as an astronaut, played a prominent role in facilitating the 100 Year Starship symposium organized by NASA and the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in Florida last fall.

One of the follow-ups from that seminar was to be the award of a $500,000 contract from DARPA to continue study of the technological, political and social requirements for ultra-long-term projects such as interstellar space missions. Several ventures put in proposals, and one of the groups that didn't win the contract, the Tau Zero Foundation, said in this week's email update that the contract was going to a team "led by an ex-astronaut."

The BBC identified the ex-astronaut as Jemison, based on the text of an unreleased letter from DARPA. It also reported that Jemison's foundation was teaming up with two other groups, Icarus Interstellar and the Foundation for Enterprise Development.

NASA file

Jemison was the first black woman in space in 1992.

DARPA has not yet publicly announced the selection, and my efforts to contact the agency's representatives have been unsuccessful so far. But after the BBC's story, the report was confirmed on the Centauri Dreams blog by Paul Gilster, who is affiliated with the Tau Zero Foundation. Gilster said Jemison's organization "now takes on the challenge of building a program that can last 100 years, and might one day result in a starship."

Adam Crowl, director of Icarus Interstellar, elaborated in a blog comment:

"... Project Icarus will keep running as it has since 2009, and the end point will be an interstellar probe design, chiefly fusion-propelled in the boost phase. That’s due at some point in 2014.

"Icarus Interstellar is a broader banner for a whole group of interstellar related research projects, Project Icarus being just one, which will be producing designs and doing basic research with the common goal of building the technical foundation required for eventual successful interstellar flight.

"Now in light of this news, we’ll be under the banner of the 100 Year Starship Organization, which covers more than just the technical aspects. Each of the triad came to our happy union with different strengths and emphases – Mae Jemison’s organization covering education and broader social goals, the Foundation for Enterprise Development covering innovative organization and operational approaches, and Icarus Interstellar covering the technical aspects. Together we’ll be working towards an organization that will last 100 years and produce a viable interstellar technology, with benefits for all humankind."

The $500,000 DARPA grant is intended to serve as seed money for the 100 Year Starship Organization. Meanwhile, the founder of Tau Zero, former NASA researcher Marc Millis, suggested in his email update that Tau Zero would lower its profile:

"It is too soon to know how this selection will affect Tau Zero's goal to rigorously and impartially guide progress toward interstellar flight.  With insufficient funding to go around, I feel that it would be a disservice to the community for Tau Zero to attempt to compete with this new organization, especially considering that this new organization now has significantly more than an order of magnitude more funding. I hope they serve the community well."

Millis said Centauri Dreams would "continue to operate as an impartial and articulate news source and discussion forum on all things interstellar."

Courtesy of Adrian Mann

An artist's impression shows the Icarus starship accelerating past Jupiter, gaining a valuable boost in speed with the help of the gas giant's gravity, slingshotting it toward its interstellar destination.

Jemison has made a name for herself not only as the first black woman in space, but also as the first real-life astronaut to appear on a "Star Trek" episode. How big of a role will she and her partners play in turning the "Star Trek" vision into reality, and on what time scale? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Update for 9 p.m. ET Jan. 9: DARPA confirmed the selection of Jemison's foundation in a brief statement attributed to Paul Eremenko, DARPA program manager, but indicated that the deal was not yet completely done:

"We can confirm that the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence has been selected for negotiation for a grant award for the 100 Year Starship effort. We have no further comment until the grant is awarded."

More about interstellar flight:

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.