100 Year Starship Study: A Response

by Paul Gilster on June 6, 2011

by Marc Millis

“The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has initiated a study to inspire the first steps in the next era of space exploration—a journey between the stars.” So reads the Request for Information document (RFI) that DARPA released recently, seeking ideas for organization, business model and approach for a self-sustaining investment vehicle to study these matters. Note that word ‘study,’ because what DARPA talks about in its recent RFI is this: “The 100 Year StarshipTM Study is a project seeded by DARPA to develop a viable and sustainable model for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel practicable and feasible.”

We’ve talked about the 100 Year Starship study before, particularly in Marc Millis’ article on his participation at the first meeting held to discuss the idea. Now Millis, former head of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project and founding architect of the Tau Zero Foundation, is releasing his response to the RFI. In coming days, we’ll look at responses from the Project Icarus team as well, in an attempt to fill you in on where things stand. Look for the Call for Papers for an upcoming conference on the 100 Year Starship study as part of this coverage.

SUBMISSION TO THE

REQUEST FOR INFORMATION (DARPA-SN-11-41)

100 YEAR STARSHIP [ORGANIZATION] STUDY

Marc G Millis
Tau Zero Foundation
P.O. Box 26027
Fairview Park, OH 44126

Organizations that can sustain progress for more than a century already exist (universities), but the goal to create starships introduces further challenges. Since acquiring funds, managing endowments, making nominal progress, and longevity are already possible, this submission concentrates on the following less obvious organizational challenges for making the game- changing advances and world-scale investments necessary for star flight:

  • Demonstrate that contributions to the new 100-yr starship organization will produce more progress than can be achieved through contributions to existing venues.
  • Accommodate world-wide interests and concerns, since interstellar flight is an endeavor that affects all humanity.
  • Ensure that the organization stays true to its mission rather than devolving to just serving its managing employees (a common pitfall).
  • Balance the need for continually acquiring fresh insights (to avoid group-think, stagnation, parochialism) with the stability needed to stay focused on the mission.
  • Provide flexibility to adapt to unforeseeable opportunities and constraints.
  • Balance resources across the small seedling investigations needed to discover methods of interstellar flight, with the larger work to apply those discoveries to create mission infrastructure and starships.
  • Balance investments across both evolutionary and revolutionary approaches (applying lessons from history about disruptive pioneers).
  • Distinguish potentially viable revolutionary approaches (that sound crazy at first), from the more numerous, genuinely crazy ideas.
  • Establish win-win intellectual property agreements where top-innovators will choose to work with the 100-yr organization, and where the organization also reaps sufficient returns to sustain its mission.
  • Disseminate information responsibly to the public, without disclosing too many technical details that might compromise future revenue generation.

Lessons from different types of organizations:

NASA’s charter makes it the expected organization to create starships, but NASA (and its supporting aerospace community) have evolved per typical patterns to become short-sighted and constrained to their founding legacy. This offers lessons about stagnation and self-absorption.

Educational institutions continue to advance knowledge applicable to interstellar missions, but they do not have the organizational capacity to align and apply all those individual elements to build starships, or the international authority to launch interstellar missions. They also often lack the ability to investigate revolutionary ideas since such ideas pose risk to their reputations. Their revenues include tuitions, licensing of innovations, and huge donations from successful, loyal alumni. Their intellectual resources include a continual flow of young students with fresh ideas, moderated by seasoned professionals.

Professional and public societies, such as the British Interplanetary Society (78 yrs old), provide venues for vetting and advancing new, unconventional ideas, but they lack the infrastructure, coherency, and resources to launch ambitious missions.

Corporations build devices that apply the knowledge gained from universities and societies, but need huge investments to build huge devices (starships) – commitments on the scale of governments. A pitfall of corporations is that they typically follow a pattern of emergence, achievement, and eventual obsolescence. The do not inherently have the longevity to pursue a cause, but rather are optimum for introducing new products.

Governments have the authority and resources to bring such notions to fruition, but are typically mired in internal bickering on near-term crises that preclude applying resources consistently to solve the long-range and difficult-to-comprehend ambitions… until those become a crisis.

And finally, although religious organizations have been used as models for longevity, their product (a belief system) is far easier to produce than scientific discoveries and functional space hardware. Additionally, given competing belief systems (plus righteousness), religions can evoke prejudice and conflicts that can impede the kind of world-scale collaborations needed for interstellar flight.

Scattered amongst all these venues are the elements for discovering methods for, and eventually launching, interstellar missions. Seeking the one best organizational structure to bring this to fruition will be a subjective exercise at best. There is no way to determine, rigorously and impartially, which methods will guarantee success. And if history is any indicator, any structure implemented today will have to adapt to unforeseeable constraints and opportunities. The notion of one, lasting organizational model might not be possible.

Instead, consider this recurring theme in history regarding achieving what was once impossible:

  • [Individual level] Pioneers, inspired by the possibilities and having the creativity and competence to make progress, create new knowledge toward solving those grand challenges. (e.g., Tsiolkovsky, Oberth, Goddard, von Braun, etc.)
  • [Group level] Those pioneers inspire more people to attempt to implement those visions, and typically volunteer organizations emerge that dabble in those ideas. After cycles of failures and successes, noteworthy progress results. (e.g. the first rocketry clubs, American Interplanetary Society, British Interplanetary Society, etc.)
  • [Corporations and Governments] Once a threshold of success has been demonstrated, corporations or governments apply those possibilities to their own interests (e.g., German V2 missiles, American Apollo Moon landing, etc).

While this pattern is not the only way that such things happen, this pattern happens often enough to suggest this strategy:

Find today’s pioneers, support them to accelerate their progress, and then filter out the best prospects. Once sufficiently viable approaches emerge – invest to bring those approaches to fruition.

When it comes to interstellar flight, none of the technical approaches that exist today are fully viable. At least 3 different estimates peg human readiness for an interstellar mission to be roughly 2-centuries away. This topic is still at the stage of finding pioneers and seeing what develops. It is no coincidence that new volunteer societies are emerging, such as the “Tau Zero Foundation,” “Peregrinus Interstellar,” “Project Icarus,” “Life Boat Foundation,” and others that are looking toward pioneering work to solve the challenges related to interstellar flight. This is a natural progression, unfolding today.

Similarly to how DARPA and NASA-Ames are looking outside of NASA to solve these challenges, so too did this author. After leading NASA’s “Breakthrough Propulsion Physics” project that addressed revolutionary ideas to solve the propulsion challenges of interstellar flight, this author realized that NASA was no longer the place for such aspirations. In 2010, an early retirement from NASA allowed full time to be devoted to the “Tau Zero Foundation” – an international network of roughly 40 accomplished researchers and journalists who pursue interstellar flight to provoke longer-range and higher-payoff progress. The foundation’s work is published in various journals and then conveyed to the public via the ‘Centauri Dreams’ news forum .

The organizational structure of Tau Zero was designed to take advantage of these historic patterns and avoid the recurring pitfalls. This includes methods to recognize and pursue disruptive, game-changing advances. It also includes methods to find the productive middle ground between wishful thinking and pedantic disdain. And as a result, Tau Zero’s practitioners are making progress. In 2010 they produced 2 books, 13 journal articles (or book chapters), 22 conference presentations, 22 media articles, plus 5 articles-per-week from the Centauri Dreams new forum. These numbers include the continuing progress of “Project Icarus” (design study for a fusion-based interstellar probe) and a few other ongoing projects.

By itself, Tau Zero does not answer all the challenges sought by the 100-yr starship organization. It is still missing a concerted revenue generation scheme, does not have all of the needed topic pioneers, and has no plans to actually launch missions. The presumption is that much research remains before mission implementation is ready to be addressed.

In this short submission, these methods can not be explained in detail, but several details have been published. For this first solicitation from the 100-year starship organization, it is hoped that introducing these issues and methods, along with this bibliography, will provide valuable guidance.

British Interplanetary Society, (continuous), (http://www.bis-space.com/)

Gilster, Paul. (continuous) Centauri Dreams – The news forum of the Tau Zero Foundation, (http://www.centauri-dreams.org/)

Klien, Eric. (continuous), Lifeboat Foundation, (http://lifeboat.com/ex/main)

Long, Kelvin. (continuous), Project Icarus, (http://www.icarusinterstellar.org/)

Millis, M. G. (2010), First Interstellar Missions, Considering Energy and Incessant Obsolescence. JBIS, 63, (publication pending)

Millis, M. G. (2010), Status Report on the Tau Zero Foundation. Centauri Dreams, 2010/Nov/19. (http://www.centauri-dreams.org?p=15379)

Millis, M. G. (2010), History Hints at a Decentralization of Future Space Activities, (IAC-10-E6.1.12). 61st IAC Prague, IAF.

Millis & Davis (eds). (2009), Frontiers of Propulsion Science. Vol 227 of Progress in Astronautics and Aeronautics, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). [See in particular Ch. 2 about technology limits, and Ch. 22 about organizational methods]

Pacher, Tibor. (continuous) Peregrinus Interstellar, (http://www.peregrinus- interstellar.net/)

(c) Marc G Millis

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{ 29 comments }

Paul Titze June 6, 2011 at 9:50

Marc Millis write:

“No funding will be allowed for research or educational activities toward interstellar flight.”

Big mistake by DARPA. If they have spare cash, spend the money on research and education, the rest will take care of itself (including organisations).

Cheers, Paul.

jan June 6, 2011 at 13:49

“And finally, although religious organizations have been used as models for longevity, their product (a belief system) is far easier to produce than scientific discoveries and functional space hardware. Additionally, given competing belief systems (plus righteousness), religions can evoke prejudice and conflicts that can impede the kind of world-scale collaborations needed for interstellar flight.”

Um. What is meant by “plus righteousness”?

Since people disagree about belief, are we not supposed to discuss it?

Since people disagree about right/wrong behavior, are we not supposed to discuss it?

People disagree about science, but we’re allowed to discuss science.

And scientists aren’t above prejudice and conflicts. Some of them have worked for corrupt governments in the past.

Politics has been as much a problem for scientific progress, but I didn’t see any suggestion that we get rid of politicians.

Belief systems are easy to come up with? Some might question that.
But if they are, how is that a reason not to discuss what’s best for society?

Scientific theories are easy to come up with too. SF writers do that for fun. I admit SF might not be as useful, sometimes, but can be fun and interesting.

I know this is a touchy subject, so I wanted to be brief, I hope I’m being clear and sensible here… I just felt like questioning some of the implications…

jan June 6, 2011 at 14:07

I see they did mention problems with governments. Sorry I overlooked that. There are some really good ideas here.

Marc G Millis June 6, 2011 at 15:12

Jan;
Religion is indeed a touchy subject where people get way too offend by differences in opinions or beliefs. That by itself (as you see yourself) is a clue as to why religion will be difficult to employ in situations that require open-mindedness and collaborations across such differences. Politics (governments) was also in the list whose effectiveness can be hampered by in-fighting. I left Sci-fi out by mistake. Sci-fi actually is a step before pioneers – since ALL the rocketry pioneers were inspired by science fiction.

One last note. I will be on travel and may not be able to tune in and keep up with comments, so if you do not hear from me, that is why.
-Marc

Darcy Bunn June 6, 2011 at 16:02

Marc, thanks for posting your response. I wondered what you would say to them. I also wrote a response, though more lighthearted.

I concluded that it’s possible having an over-arching foundation that helped pump money into existing efforts (like TZF) would be good to have, and that it is not impossible to create it and for it to exist over the long haul. I proposed as a model, a nonprofit that would raise money via shareholders buying shares at first (I mean, who wouldn’t want to frame their stock certificate that says 100 Year Starship on it? Plus have voting rights in the organization.), and ongoing funding with continuing donations. If the foundation could successfully engage a wide range of interested parties –if people were not petty or disdainful toward the effort, or egotistical about their own institutions, companies, or organizations– maybe synergy could happen between the high IQ people, which could then be promoted across a wide audience to raise donations to the foundation. I suppose it would be a little like a publicly-owned, autonomous NASA that could give out millions of dollars in grants to worthy applicants.

I linked my response on my blog if anyone wants to read my “out-there” model for this 100 Year Starship organization. http://www.thespacegeneration.com/100-year-starship-response-to-darpa.html

If nothing else, I’m glad doing this little project led me to learn more about Tau Zero. I’m looking forward to those disruptive breakthroughs to start rolling out.

Bounty June 6, 2011 at 16:12

“Disseminate information responsibly to the public, without disclosing too many technical details that might compromise future revenue generation.”

That makes it sound just like any other misc corporation then. At least worded the way it is.

ToSeek June 6, 2011 at 16:45

I think it’s worth mentioning that Tau Zero is the title of a classic science fiction novel by Poul Anderson about a spaceship very similar to what’s being proposed.

bigdan201 June 6, 2011 at 16:47

You’ve made many good points here. There are some other concerns I have about interstellar flight, which I’ve mentioned previously, but I’ll sum them up here.

Getting to Orbit – Space in general will be a far easier and more attractive prospect once we master getting into orbit. Launch loops seem like a great idea, although there is a big up front investment. Once we find a more viable method, space will be opened up much more, leading to the next point…

Space Economy – After scientific exploration, the next step is to develop industry and economy in space. A major part of this will be mining, whether on asteroids or gas giants. Your previous article mentioned the possibilities of He3 as interstellar fuel. Once there is a space economy, it will be a platform to further advances, and act as an impetus.

Destination – To really generate the will to get to the stars, we need to observe and measure as much as possible. Great strides have been made in this with the exoplanet hunt, which will only continue. We must identify what kind of resources, opportunities, and exoplanets are out there. Until we do, it will make more sense to observe (either from earth, earth orbit, or the suns gravitational lens) than to actually fly across the parsecs. After all, it will be easier to get funding for telescopes than for such an ambitious long term project.
But when we find a rich supply of resources and/or an exo-earth around another star, I believe that there will be a strong motivation to develop a long-term interstellar project and to stick with it. We have always been pioneers, and that drive will be re-awakened by a significant interstellar destination, preferably within 25 light-years or so.

People disagree about science, but we’re allowed to discuss science.

At this stage in history, scientific inquiry generally does not ignite passions and controversies like religion or politics. If there is a disagreement in science, all parties involved can agree to work it out by common principles. This is not the case with hot-button issues with no clear answer.

Greg June 6, 2011 at 17:44

I would definitely agree that a form of corporation would be better suited for the long run. As scientific progress is made, the corporation could capitalize on the technology, helping it to pay for its development. It would become self-sufficient and self-motivated, and lead to a quicker development path than Government could provide.

Bryan A. Brown June 7, 2011 at 5:42

As Paul has mentioned on this site before, mankind has participated in multi-generational projects in the past (Great Pyramids, Gothic Cathedrals), but this involves some form of religious belief.

Like it or not, maybe this is what is needed. And it says a lot about the human psyche in general.

Rob Henry June 7, 2011 at 8:22

I can’t help but repeat the quote given by Jan

“And finally, although religious organizations have been used as models for longevity, their product (a belief system) is far easier to produce than scientific discoveries and functional space hardware. Additionally, given competing belief systems (plus righteousness), religions can evoke prejudice and conflicts that can impede the kind of world-scale collaborations needed for interstellar flight.”

Firstly righteousness is good by definition but humans have an inbuilt hatred of those who don’t compromise, especially on what they consider unconscionable. The underlying assumption in the above passage is that we are better off employing those who have very flexible morals than addressing quandaries.

Secondly religion is and has been so central to life in so many times and places that any internal conflict had to be explained and addressed in terms of that religion no matter what its real root. In fact the West has only made three attempts to suddenly and completely ditch religion, the French revolution, Communism, and German style fascism. These are the only data points that are undistorted be need of pretence dressing all conflict in religious terms, and they seem to argue strongly against religion reducing peaceful cooperation.

Thirdly, the aforementioned breaks from religion really did seems to help scientific development – despite the killing fields generated by these events. Even cooperation within science and technology did well, for example the tailfins for the V2 was both designed and built entirely by POW Russians, even though the Germans of the time tended to think of them as subhuman.

The lessons of religion are far more complex and difficult to judge than portrayed above.

Eric June 7, 2011 at 13:52

It’s gotta be a nonprofit foundation or society. The National Geographic Society is one model, as are the Masons (quasi religious secret society).

For the short term, it would mainly husband an endowment and let (hopefully, if economic growth continues) the magic of compound interest take place over a few generations. With enough capital, it could also get into some venture funding to cultivate the development of the needed technologies (and get shares of resulting commercial companies).

One spin on this is the Wikipedia model for an open source (combined with the financing model above). Small contributions by lay engineers, investors, social scientists, ecologists, etc. to develop a starship and its operations. It may be nice to marry the emerging movement in open source desktop manufacturing with the starship goal since that movement can help cultivate large enough crowds of people with some engineering skills and the means of building components. People who know how to build things in an open source sense would be exactly the kinds of people you’d want to crew on a starship anyway.

Daniel June 7, 2011 at 19:05

Marc Millis write:

“No funding will be allowed for research or educational activities toward interstellar flight.”

Then I’d like ask a question: if there is not money to research and education toward interstellar flight,that is the only way to someday build a starship,what is the money for? I mean if we look at the past,if wasn’t the money to education and research, airplanes,rockets would never fly from the ground,same is valid for all science fields.

so could you Marc Millis,or anyone here, answer-me what “100 Year Starship study” is all about?
In my opinion I’ll be frank, 100 Year Starship go in nowhere,sciences programs never will reach the goals, without investing in education and research. So I don’t buy it,with this “study”we’ll haven’t starship not in 100 years,not even in 100 millions years .

Steven Rappolee June 7, 2011 at 23:12

$1 million a year plus an additional $1 million a year plus 10% interest minus 3 % for inflation(7%) yields about $ 16,000,000,000 in a century.
The IRS requires a 501 c 3 to expand 4% of its endowment every year on its charitable cause so we would need a congressional charterd 501 c 3 to allow this to go down to 1% per year, and the members of the board and contributers must be and remain volunteers!
this might prevent parochialism, but would make for a non profit like no other.At some point the 1% per year could pay for white papers and mission design study s but these are best done by volunteers in the first decades after many decades the 1% could be expended on hard ware that has some sort of profit motive or scientific need for commercial utilization of human occupied space,
this means this fund should not become solely a science program
it can not be solely a commercial program
it must seek ways to do science and commercial exploitation of space only in innovative ways such as making a business case for fuel depots, ISRU,space based solar……………………..
at the end of the first century perhaps the charter might allow for investing the funds as an investment in some future spaceX or other promising venture as a white knight or venture capitalist.
Intelsat was when I was growing up in the 1960′s was an international organization owned by shareholding governments and even the poorest member owned an orbital slot at GSO. Perhaps our congressionally chartered nonprofit could have in its charter the ability to become the american share holder in such an international organization dedicated to an interstellar attempt.
existing non profits in other country’s such as the BIS could be their nations entity.
The executive board should be a mix of those of you who are from a mix of existing organizations you see here everyday,the folks who someday receive research funds should not be the folks who are volunteers who vote to grant funds,peer review is the best policy, but it to can lead to parochialism and stagnation in science
look to California, they put in term limits, but only for a particular office for a number of years this means you can only run for the assembly three times and then you must run for something else for three terms of your old seat.
Gerry brown has been Governor in the 1970′s and held other offices and then a big city mayor, it is here that this big city benefited from all of the years of his experience in several high offices.
for you folks to, you should be term limited,even as a volunteer worker, change jobs! do something new, you can stay say on the propulsion team but not as leader, go lead ECLSS for a while.
as a volunteer you have a paid day job! this to enriches the interstellar organization since it brings your expertise from there to here.one more rule!
you may die in office or simply be a volunteer team member but if you leave money it must be in a humble way, it must go into the trust endowment, it must not specify expenditures that would violate the rules above, if you believe you are intitald to be a volunteer in exchange for a large gift, well everyone should be intitled to be a volunteer, but perhaps it does not follow you become a leader in exchange for a large gift, this to could lead down that road to parochialism and entrenched ideas.
this should be in our congressional charter, future government funds must not alter our charter.
Our charter should be what we would want our future descendent’s to bring aboard their spacecraft as their, “mayflower document” they will know its right if we can make it work in our non profit for a century or two before they embark on their long journey, indeed let me make this our proposal now, we will write such a document to govern our interstellar non profit fully intending to ask that a future generation take it on board their starship as a founding document, they will only do so if they find our words moving in spirit and still having relevance to them at that date in the future
my possible model would be the science fiction classic, voyage to yesteryear”
by P Hogan.But even here I think commercial entrepreneurship combined with scientific exploration of the solar system will lay the groundwork for are great ship, but the ship it self will have to be owned and governed by the people on board.
many religious spiritual people have put aside money and profit and greed for some knowledge or enlightenment, only expecting recognition of a life well lived and a life contributed to a goal only.

Please allow me for a short while to attempt to lead us in writing a charter that in part speaks of a entity as DARPA might be thinking of ( do we want to?) but more importantly allow me to lead an effort( for a while :):) ) to write what our social contract might be with all of you as team members.
You folks will have to decide how to spend the 1% if at all in the first 50 years, and you and our descendent’s will also chose what is worthy of research

Kenneth Harmon June 7, 2011 at 23:34

Marc,

There is much to commend in your response, and I agree with almost all of it. However, I also believe that those of us who are interested in Interstellar travel must stop “painting all Interstellar travel with a single brush”. Instead we must begin to clearly distinguish between manned or unmanned trips to Alpha Centauri versus trips to everywhere else. For Interstellar travel and given known physics and known technology, proximity and luck (something of interest very close) are everything.

While a trip to Alpha Centauri would present enormous technical challenges, even with the rather primitive technology available to us today there are ways to get there at least conceptually (Orion being one). They may be politically unacceptable right now or very expensive and therefore highly unlikely for the foreseeable future, but if there was some compelling reason such as survival of the species or perhaps even physical detection of a new Earth type planet around one of the Alpha Centuari Stars then serious preparations would begin. Instead of at least 200 years away suddenly the focus would be on executing such a trip sometime in the 21st Century. In essence, given a compelling reason a couple of Trillion dollars spent goes a long way.

However, an Interstellar Mission to Alpha Centauri is truly a unique case because given its proximity to Sol/Terra it can be to some extent “brute forced engineered” with scaled up Interplanetary travel technology if there was an absolutely essential reason to go there over the next ~85 years. Therefore, while a trip from Sol/Terra to Alpha Centauri is still Interstellar in nature it should be treated differently as almost a “one off case”. This is due to the fact that the technology and engineering base required to support such a trip is much lower compared to that which would be required for Interstellar trips much beyond 5 light years. Beyond this distance there can be no “jury rigging”, and we now enter the realm of the need to develop robust Interstellar travel technologies many of them probably based on new physics to ultimately make Interstellar travel practical instead of just “doable”

Two different required Technology and Engineering levels also means two different types of organizational constructs to get there. For example, under a different set of political and economic conditions from today DARPA and NASA working together may very well be the right organizations to plan for a trip to Alpha Centauri as an ultimate focused goal. They are not the right organizations to think about true Interstellar travel beyond Alpha Centauri. For that we need a fundamentally new organizational construct such as a foundation or trust that pursues the requisite enabling physics and technologies over the course of a couple of hundred of years.

Steven Rappolee June 8, 2011 at 0:11

One more comment,
in the case of the DARPA request, our non profit at a certain point could enter into “space act agreements” in this century with those with “skin in the game” IE your commercial idea does lead to a star ship (?) and we would want you to give us in interest or dividend to us if you succeed.IE we are not a grant but an investment and we want your company to pay us back to further the endowments purposes.
indeed the endowment itself could buy defense stocks and other aerospace/exploration company common stocks to further our cause, but such actions could corrupt us or in the alternative we could civilize the cultures of these company’s?
you see, its clear to me now…………………( frank Bowman) future governments that can build a starship must be a civilization that does not have involuntary poverty, and as such we must set a new standard for governments on earth as well as our embarking star fairers , no salary or financial gain in our century for those who we recognize as our leaders , in the next century these things may not mean as much.
in our century we recognize individual creativity through profit as a source of benefit to all humanity, but never should you deny basic human dignity and sustainment in your efforts to achieve human settlement of the cosmos by denying to your coworkers or employees basic rights to happiness.
a one hundred year starship study means much more then how do we do it? it means how do we do it with out destroying ourself s first

Barton Paul Levenson June 8, 2011 at 4:22

“, the aforementioned breaks from religion really did seems to help scientific development”

Does the name “Trofim D. Lysenko” ring a bell? How about the phrase “Jewish science” or “Jewish physics?” Remember what happened to Antoine Lavoisier?

Only someone completely unfamiliar with history would make a statement like that quoted above.

I was very interested in contributing to this project when I heard about it. Then I read the post and the responses. As both a born-again Christian and a physicist, I don’t wish to be associated with any organization where I will be subject to discrimination or prejudice based on my private beliefs.

Self righteousness isn’t only found in the religious. I run across a lot of it from internet atheists. Even those who should know better.

Norm Davison June 8, 2011 at 8:40

[NOTE: Norm Davison's two comments below came in as emails, but I encouraged him to publish them to get his ideas out to a wider audience. --PG]

If the opportunity presents, I would like to see a thoughtful consideration of interstellar flight using nuclear explosions. I realize this is currently forbidden for political reasons, but it also seems to be much closer to practicality than any other means of which I am aware, including the methods proposed for the Icarus project.

Basically, I am disappointed that the core of the scientific approach seems to be missing in nearly all discussions of interstellar flight: science should be as independent of short-term political considerations as possible, and should focus on the physics, biology… not the philosophical constraints no matter how important they may be in the short term.

Norm Davison June 8, 2011 at 8:41

I’m maybe a bit older than most. I remember reading Dyson’s article in Physics Today many years ago when I was just stating my career as a (nuclear) physicist. At the time, I regretfully applauded the banning of nuclear explosions in space as a necessary adjunct to making the world a tiny bit safer, but it has always left in me a little core of disappointment. I’m not so naive as to think that during my lifetime anyone is going to build a nuclear explosion powered space ship especially for doing something as “mundane” as exploring the outer solar system, but interstellar flight is so big that we are unlikely to achieve it in a time scale on the order of decades. Politics will change, perhaps for the better, perhaps not. Saying we shouldn’t look at nuclear explosions is ultimately a statement that the politics will not change between now and when we might consider asking for grant money to start work on actually building an interstellar probe. Let’s assume the politics will change. Being ready to react to an opportunity is always a good preparatory stragegy even when the probability of a given occurrence is low.

It may be that nuclear explosions are not the way to go. So be it. But… if we don’t exam it, we may well be doomed to working on a toy project. I would like to see a comparison of nuclear explosion propulsion and the type of micro explosions probably to be proposed for Project Icarus. Personally, I’m not optimistic that the “gain” available from He3-D micro explosions can be made large enough to drive an interstellar probe of any reasonable size. I hope the Project Icarus people can put real numbers into that part, but I’m not optimistic that we yet have a sufficiently real idea of how to build a He3-D rocket. I’m not worried about technological readiness. I’m worried about the basic physics: can you actually get to, say, >3% c by anything other than nuclear explosions?

You mentioned the objections to the Cassini Probe. That was nothing other than sad, but that’s the price we pay for living in a democracy. The objections to even trying interstellar flight are so much greater than for Cassini, everything from attracting little green men to ignoring Earthly problems. I’m sure it will be objected that the power levels in an Icarus craft, no matter how it is powered, could fry the Earth if it fell into the wrong hands etc etc.

However, suppose we find that to the very best of our ability to envisage various propulsion systems, nuclear explosions are the only way to go, and I mean only. Do we just give up forever because the politics are bad? I would hope such a finding would refocus efforts toward education, working to building concessions into the treaties, working with the scientists and engineers of other countries that might eventually have a serious interest in an interstellar probe. I suspect that several decades of political groundwork might be needed as the core pre-requisite for interstellar flight.

I don’t think we can know whether the core problem is politics or physics until we examine the situation more objectively.

This is why I would like to see a real examination of the nuclear explosion propulsion option. Forget the “viable option from the political point of view”, just take the phyiscs point of view. Later on, after we’re all dead, maybe the politics will have changed, and those who work on nuclear explosions and ablative shields will be seen as bold visionaries.

Tobias Holbrook June 8, 2011 at 12:47

I’m doubtful somewhat that the first interstellar travellers will be coming from Terra – there’s too many political hurdles. Far better to build your ship in some out of the way colony around Uranus… it may be that chemical explosives can be used to trigger fusion explosions, in which case building fusion bombs for an Orion will be a rather easy matter, relatively speaking.

Greg June 8, 2011 at 14:38

@Barton Paul Levenson,

This will be my only mention on this topic.

I applaud you as I am a Christian as well. Although I am willing to defend my beliefs I do find to many online sites denigrate from posing excellent informative to religion bashing free-for-all. Not wanting to see this site become one of those, I steer away from posting my beliefs and remain true to the article by discussing what is relevant. I also will try to steer the conversation from inflammatory remarks others say.
I believe Paul reports on hard facts and does not push biases like most other sites will, which I find refreshing.
With that said, please don’t let peoples own bias represent an organizations bias, unless it’s evident, which I don’t believe it is.
As I say, “Science is man’s study of the universe God made.”
We need to just look at the hard facts and allow each of us to reach the conclusions we believe.

Marc G Millis June 8, 2011 at 19:01

It’s encouraging to see these discussions. Too many points were raised, however, than I can comment on. Some of the questions have been discussed in previous CD posts, so clarification is available in the (search-able) archives.

CLARIFICATION: The 100-yr starship effort is from DARPA/Ames (not Tau Zero). Their stance of funding a study for an organization, instead of research, is a DARPA/Ames choice. I’ll leave it up to readers to judge if that is a good or bad thing. My cohorts and I are responding to their first call for ideas – which was constrained to organizational issues, instead of technology. By posting our submissions here, we are attempting to introduce more openness into this process. At this point I have no idea what DARPA/Ames will do with any of these submissions. And, DARPA/Ames raised the possible role of religion.

NOTE: Although moderated (to eliminate fringe, attacks, etc.), the comments here are from those of who post them instead of speaking for Tau Zero. When rendering judgments, please make sure your attributions are accurate. Inferences can be misleading. When in doubt, check what the source really said.

Paul Gilster June 8, 2011 at 20:18

I was about to make some of Marc’s points when I logged on and then realized he had already clarified the DARPA/Ames effort and distinguished it from other entities like the Tau Zero Foundation. For those who need more background, here are two stories I’ve previously published on this interstellar study:

http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=15147

http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=16525

Planet Junta June 8, 2011 at 23:43

I think Jan touched on an important point about the mission: politics and religion should not be steadfastly ignored during the mission development, but rather should be addressed head-on. In talking with Steve Kilston many years ago, I soon realized that a key “technology” issue for the mission is social dynamics. The crew will number a meager million or less, and will have to be zero-growth. Resources also will be limited and at best slowly diminishing. To occupy the thousands of years between stars, humans will occupy a great deal of their time confronting the biggest issues of the last 2000-5000 years, which always seem to include a lot of religion and politics.

Not planning for this would be a serious oversight, and doing so deliberately would be as foolish as not developing strategies for epidemiology, especially pandemics. Therefore I think bringing religious thinkers on board in the designing and planning phases is essential.

Rob Henry June 9, 2011 at 0:04

Barton Paul Levenson, the counterexamples you mention are all extremely important in helping decide the optimal environment for scientific advancement, and show that neither communism of nazism should both have been particularly good environments in that regard. However if you look holistically at their overall scientific output, somehow is seems to come out on the positive side of the ledger.

We must be able to learn something from these otherwise appalling systems about building an institution that is both monolithic enough and innovative enough to construct a starship. I am upset at any implication whatsoever that that lesson might be in terms of the moral values employed in such an enterpriser, and apologise for any hurt caused.

Tyler Durden June 9, 2011 at 17:42

Quoting Marc G Millis -

“At this point I have no idea what DARPA/Ames will do with any of these submissions.”

My fear is they will pat us on our collective heads, file away all the ideas, and say look how cool we are because we actually brought up the idea of a starship! And then hope everyone gets distracted and forgets the whole thing ever happened.

The general public is being led to believe that all these interstellar plans mean someone, be it NASA or the BIS or whatever, is going to build a real honest to God (whoops!) starship. We’ll be going to Alpha Centauri at Warp 9.9 to meet the big blue aliens of Pandora in no time!

I hope someone will say up front and keep saying it that these are all just a combination of academic exercises and PR and that no one is going to be building anything real any time soon. Certainly not while most of us are alive.

Back in the Fifties and Sixties, we really did do the things in space that we said we were going to do – including a vehicle called Orion that could get us to the stars with current, real technology – but those days are past. Now we can’t even decide when or if to put a single small colony on the Moon. Blame the economy, blame Star Wars, blame the Internet, blame a lack of drive and courage; they all play a role.

I wonder what it will take for the human race to focus on making interstellar flight a reality. Maybe one of those super rich guys who’s really into space. Because my faith in governments and academics and space “fans” getting anything really done is smaller than a mustard seed.

Xana June 18, 2011 at 12:53

Who needs a government to lead the way to the stars? Government has always had an ambivalent and complicated influence on outward exploration. Minimize the government stake.

1. Start a foundation (with good financial controls) – Call it Eridani Foundation
2. Objective Statement: Send a crew to another star which has a habitable Earth-like planet, land and explore and map the planet, and return to earth safely by 2050.
3. Explore, discover possibly new sources of energy and propulsion.
4. Design, build, and crew a starship.
5. Identify and construct a limited set of science missions to accompany the trip.

James August 2, 2011 at 6:01

I would assume that to create a 100 year starship, financing and organized structure are less inportant than having a viable and cost effective means. To form only one fondation or organization, even with unlimited financing, may take longer to create a cost effective method than to have a thousand independent researchers competing aganst each other to find new methods. For an example, look to corporations in competition with each other on new technology.
Create a need and corporations will seek new technology to fulfill the need. This is the same way we need to look at the 100 year starship. Its not the end result we should consider right now, but rather what we as a whole, a country, or the world would need from this. Create a need and those who can fill the need will do the rest.

Ralph Swanson October 7, 2011 at 2:43

Glad to meet many of you at the Conference… and here’s to 100 Years from Now! Share your social entrepreneurship projects and updates at our FB: http://www.facebook.com/LibertarianInternationalOrganization

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