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Pentagon, NASA Talking Interstellar Travel

Jan 26, 2011 – 11:31 AM
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Sharon Weinberger

Sharon Weinberger Contributor

President Barack Obama may have scrapped plans to return the moon, but now the Pentagon and NASA are working to create an organization that could one day take mankind to the stars and beyond.

NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a research arm of the Pentagon, held an invitation-only meeting earlier this month in San Francisco. The meeting, which included an eclectic mix of science fiction writers, scientists and entrepreneurs, was designed to kick off something called the 100-Year Starship Study, which is looking at way to enable interstellar travel.

Just don't expect a space ship anytime soon.

The goal of the project, insist attendees and DARPA, is not to build an Enterprise-style starship. Rather, the intent is to lay the groundwork for a self-sustaining organization or even a business that would invest the time and money to make such technology possible.

The project is the brainchild of Pete Worden, head of the NASA Ames Research Center, and David Neyland, the director of DARPA's tactical technology office. Neyland, who used to work for NASA, says the study goes back to a conversation he had with Worden about how to inspire young researchers to think about the technologies needed for space travel.

"As we toyed with ideas, we also remembered back to our early days of reading science fiction," he said in an interview. "There's always a real interest in exploration, whether it's exploration under the ocean or exploration beyond the next mountain or, in our generation, exploration of space."

They came upon the idea of doing a study to look at how to set up an organization that could further research into interstellar travel, looking at ideas that would be achievable in the next 100 years. "We coined the term '100-Year Starship Study,'" Neyland said of the plan.

If the project's goals are unusual, so, too, are the invitees to the February meeting, which included several science fiction writers, a former astronaut and Jack Sarfatti, an independent physicist known for his interest in UFO technology. Sarfatti declined to comment about the meeting, but other attendees described the project with a mix of enthusiasm and trepidation.

Worden, who has talked about one-way manned missions to Mars, declined to comment on the current project, but Neyland said the mix of attendees was designed to raise questions and provoke debate about issues including business models for space travel and enabling technologies. Even questions like, "How do you decide who goes?" were raised.

Elizabeth Bear, a science fiction writer who attended, told AOL News that she went into the gathering "suspicious" of the concept but came out encouraged by what she heard.

"Basically, the intent of the meeting was to brainstorm the plausibility of a self-sustaining non-governmental organization dedicated to supporting technological, sociological, scientific and industrial breakthroughs that would lead to the 'ability' to build a starship -- that is to say, a space ship capable of interstellar flight -- by 2111," she wrote in an e-mail to AOL News.

Joe Haldeman, another science fiction writer in attendance, described this first meeting as a starting point for such thinking about such work. "As a practical matter, I see the whole thing as a 'thought experiment' until some scientific breakthrough makes travel on that scale possible with a finite price tag," he wrote.

In many ways, the NASA-DARPA project is an outgrowth of the Obama administration's approach to space travel, which has shifted from ambitious but financially unrealistic plans for returning to the moon, and then going on to Mars, and instead focusing on fostering a private-sector entrepreneurial vision of space travel.

But that focus on the private sector -- rather than government-sponsored -- project also drew criticism from some participants at the recent meeting.

"I don't quite understand the 'business' aspect, nor do I share some of the assertions at the workshop about government space exploration being uncertain and that we should look for more private-sector involvement," Lou Friedman, a former director of the Planetary Society, wrote at The Space Review after attending the gathering.

For Marc Millis, a former NASA official who once ran a program that funded research into technologies needed for interstellar travel, the new project is exciting but also frustrating. "This discussion focused so much on organization. They were saying, 'Let's create a new entity.' Instead of, 'How do you really get things done?'" said Mills, who now runs the Tau Zero Foundation, which is dedicated to research enabling interstellar flight. "It struck me as kind of weird."

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Is the DARPA-NASA project just blue sky dreaming? Not necessarily, at least if you're talking about 100 years, according to Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at City College of New York and the bestselling author of "Physics of the Impossible." Kaku says some concepts for interstellar travel, like warp drive or wormholes, probably aren't within reach this century. "I don't believe people will build warp engine within the next 100 years," he said.

But there are concepts for traveling to the stars that could work, at least in theory, says Kaku, who points to concepts like solar sails, which are already being tested by the Japanese, and starships powered by nuclear fusion or even antimatter. He also thinks nanoships -- tiny intelligent chips that could be scattered in space -- might be possible.

"Those technologies could well be available in 100 years," he said.
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