Commentary

The 100 Year Starship Symposium

 

by Edward Wright

We attended the 100 Year Starship Symposium mostly out of curiosity. There’s not a lot of commonality between 100 Year Starship and Citizens in Space. We focus on making low-end, near-term applications of human spaceflight available to the average citizen. 100 Year Starship, on the other hand, is about as high-end and long-term as you can get. Still, we were curious to see how the 100 Year Starship organization was planning to approach such an audacious challenge.

For those who don’t know, the 100 Year Starship Initiative was created by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), with additional funding from NASA. DARPA’s goal was to create a private-sector organization that would bring about the creation of a starship within the next 100 years. DARPA and NASA do not intend to fund the 100 Starship project themselves, beyond some initial seed funding ($500,000) to get it started. DARPA’s approach to this problem is innovative and interesting in itself.

Last year, DARPA sponsored the first 100 Year Starship Symposium and invited interested organizations to apply for the seed funding. After a short proposal period, DARPA awarded the seed money to a team led by the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, with Icarus Interstellar and the Foundation for Enterprise Development as team members. This year’s symposium was the first meeting run by the newly funded team.

The first thing we noticed was that the Symposium focused very heavily on the culture, outreach, and sociological aspects surrounding the project. We heard a number of attendees express concern that this focus was not what they thought DARPA was going to be funding. On the other hand, an argument could be made that technical work on interstellar flight is premature and the outreach and cultural work is the only thing that 100YSS can usefully do at this time. We aren’t sure that argument is wrong.

The technical sessions we attended were a bit unfocused. There does not seem to be any common agreement on what the 100 Year Starship goal actually means. We heard three distinct visions (with minor variations on each). One group wants to develop warp drive or some other form of faster-than-light travel, to get humans to the stars quickly. Another wants to build a big slower-than-light ship using relatively conventional fusion or antimatter propulsion. A third group would simply send a light-weight automated probe, propelled by an external laser or microwave beam. Any of these might be might be called a starship, but they are three very different concepts which imply very different development paths.

Read more: The 100 Year Starship Symposium | Moonandback

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