by Marc Millis

When Pete Worden (NASA Ames) spoke to the Long Now Foundation recently, he surely didn’t realize how much confusion his announcement of a ‘100-Year Starship’ study would create. The news coverage has been all over the map and frequently incorrect, ranging from intimations of a coverup (Fox News) to mistaken linkages between the study and competely unrelated talk about one-way missions to Mars (the Telegraph and many other papers). What’s really going on in this collaboration between NASA and DARPA? Marc Millis has some thoughts on that based on his own talks with the principals. Millis, former head of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project and founding architect of the Tau Zero Foundation, here puts some of the myths to rest and explains where the 100-Year Starship fits into our future.

If you have not yet heard, there’s been a bit of news flurry over the announcement that DARPA is funding NASA Ames to the tune of $1M for a one-year study for a “100-Year Starship.” I was as surprised as anyone when I heard. First, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is a defense agency, not one concerned yet with things beyond Earth. Next, NASA’s Ames Research Center does not specialize in the advanced sciences and technologies of star flight, but rather in information technology, air traffic safety, astrobiology, and human factors.

If anything, I would have expected NASA Glenn Research Center (advanced propulsion and power for air and space flight) or NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (planetary and deep space probe missions) to have been selected as the NASA partner. And the third surprise is that NASA, in general, has been indifferent (since around 2003) to any goals beyond the von Braun visions for humans on the Moon and Mars. What is less surprising is that this confusion is wide spread. Quoting from Michael Braukus, a NASA spokesman at HQ, DC: “This is not a NASA program, there’s no money for it.”

So, what is the real story behind this and what does this mean for the Tau Zero Foundation?

First, the news stories mixed things up. During a lecture that Pete Worden (head of NASA-Ames) gave at a Long Now Foundation event, several different items were mentioned: The 100-year starship, microwave power beaming for launch assist, one-way missions to Mars, etc. The latter are separate items, not part of the starship study. Also, not all of this information was ready for disclosure, so it was jumping the gun a bit.

DARPA’s press release actually deals with HOW starships should be studied, rather than studying the starships themselves. They want help from Ames to consider the business case for a non-government organization to provide such services that would use philanthropic donations to make it happen. Quoting from DARPA’s news release: “The 100-Year Starship study looks to develop the business case for an enduring organization designed to incentivize breakthrough technologies enabling future spaceflight.” DARPA’s Paul Eremenko adds this:

“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.”

Accordingly, I am one of the folks they contacted with whom to discuss this further. Even though this is an ideal match for the Tau Zero Foundation, there are other organizations and other implementation options that Ames and DARPA want to look at. Beyond that, I’m not supposed to go into details since it’s all “pre-decisional” kind of stuff. Rest assured that when things can be discussed you’ll get the most reliable reports right here on Centauri Dreams.

That said, I’ve also been writing a status update about the Tau Zero Foundation. Now that this latest interruption has ebbed, I’ll get back to that and will fill you in on all the things Tau Zero has been doing and where we stand today.

Ad astra incrementis!