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Millis: Thoughts on the ‘100-Year Starship’

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!


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Louis Govaert November 2, 2010, 9:49

    It is a little bit funny that just now that your president has put operation “return to the moon” in the fridge (if not deepfreeze) people are suggesting to prepare star flight.

    I am very interested in the evolution of space operations and visiting mars and the moon (the other way around…) You will understand the presidential decision was a real blow to my expectations and my enthousiasm.

    I just had my 72 years aniversary party . So you will understand that I am a little bit weary about blocking the evolution….

    But don’t worry, I will survive it!


  • Istvan November 2, 2010, 11:31

    Did I just read that a study is being funded to determine HOW starships are to be studied? I’m sorry, I hope I misread that.

    Otherwise, the bureaucrats have truly won and we as a society have become bereft and bankrupt of initiative.

  • Adam November 2, 2010, 22:56

    Sounds like Robert Heinlein’s fictional “Long Range Foundation” in that DARPA Press Release. Definitely a very good idea which I hope gets supported.

  • Ric Capucho November 3, 2010, 4:39

    The study to plan the study costs $1M.

    I’ll do it for a bargain $900K. I shall await NASA’s feverish scramble to contact me…

  • Carl Keller November 3, 2010, 5:24

    The ‘news’ about the colonization of Mars was prolific and put out by many services. I am happy to have read Marc’s article.

  • Jay Lake November 3, 2010, 7:24

    Good luck with that!

  • Scott D Hodgson November 3, 2010, 10:28

    This study is hardly the posterchild of bureaucratic tediousness, as many of you are making it to be. The study is actually serving a rather vital service, if future plans are to be optimized, not to mention setting up parameters in which to one day compare alternative space ships.

    From the sound of it, this study is focusing on drawing in interest and setting up a program to explore space travel in the future. Compared to many of the projects that both the government and NASA have thrown away money on, this is actually a sound investment.


  • Pete November 3, 2010, 12:06

    The study to plan the study costs $1M.

    Not including the study to plan the study to plan the study. Meta- studies can really add up.

  • David November 3, 2010, 12:43

    Dont despair Louis Obama was right but as usual did a poor sales job.
    NASAs focus is new propulsion for interplanetary manned travel. The return to the Moon program was a rerun
    I am excited to hear Marc is getting back in the loop. I think Marc is in Ohio .

    I really think we should move NASA HQ to Ohio and build the new fusion engine research center there. That would create thousands of jobs in Ohio.
    I understand someone in teh Whitehouse knows that there need to be some visible jobs in Ohio

  • johnq November 3, 2010, 13:14

    “Pre-decisional?” “Studies for studies?” This is Dilbert goes to the Stars. How extraordinarily lame. Putting Wally in charge of NASA would get better results.
    As for the “Long Range Foundation,” oh please, this is more like the “Wrong Ways Foundation,” an insult to the great Heinlein at the very least.
    Look, I hate being negative (unless the subject is James Cameron) but NASA must go. Keep the unmanned probes and satellites and maybe the stuff that has military value, but that probably should go to the military as well. The organization is dead. It was dead after Skylab.

  • Chris T November 3, 2010, 14:01

    I’m actually more confused after reading the DARPA statement. What exactly are they planning to do?

  • David November 3, 2010, 17:12

    I would be happy for it to go to Defense. It has money. I dont think Marc can go into details yet

  • ecc November 3, 2010, 17:22

    What’s so confusing about the DARPA statement?

    The second paragraph spells out the point of the study: “The 100-Year Starship study will examine the business model needed to develop and mature a technology portfolio enabling long-distance manned space flight a century from now. This goal will require sustained investments of intellectual and financial capital from a variety of sources. The year- long study aims to develop a construct that will incentivize and facilitate private co-investment to ensure continuity of the lengthy technological time horizon needed.”

    Paraphrased: Here’s some funding to develop a viable business model for multi-decade exploration. Neither our current government space program or private space industries have processes in place to a) raise the money (and political capital) for something that’ll run over a century, b) keep it funded consistently for that long.

    I don’t understand the negativity. There’s no way any group, private or public, could even hope to consider a project of this scope without a lot of pre-planning.

  • Pete November 3, 2010, 22:00

    Governments, industries, and NPOs can and have funded centuries long projects, perhaps not space but then no one has, so without that precedent your last statement is irrelevant. This kind of vague, grand scheming doesn’t deserve to be funded over projects that are specific about their goals and their science. It’s a lot like sacrificing goats to the Greek God Zues. The whole “century” nonsense is reminiscent of the “Thousand Year Reich”. It might make sense if they were ready to launch something and the scientifically predicted ETA at point X was 100 years- it seems as though they’re trying to borrow from that premise- but they’re talking about designing and engineering, not actual spaceflight, and that’s not something that can be deliberately planned out over a century by anyone. NASA, for example, hasn’t existed for half a century because that’s how it was planned; it’s because there happened to be enough political will to warrant its existence throughout that time. There’s no way of knowing if manned interplanetary spaceflight will happen in centuries, decades, or years.

  • bigdan201 November 4, 2010, 4:10

    Indeed @ ecc, I don’t share in the pessimistic sentiment. At this juncture, planning and think tanks are all you can hope for when it comes to interstellar trips. As we’re all aware, going to even a nearby star is an order of magnitude beyond solar system missions.

    The fact that they’re making a move in this direction is a hopeful sign.

  • Joy November 4, 2010, 5:44

    Was in Cologne last August, the cathedral there took 600 years to build. Maybe something like a religious order (complete with multi-generational income stream) is what is needed.

  • Eniac November 5, 2010, 9:09

    @Joy: The reasons the cathedrals “took” so long to build was that they were built in short spurts of funding with long intervening periods of neglect. Technically, it would not take more than a few years, given full funding and perseverance through the entire process.

    Also, this is not a thing of the past, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan has been built for more than a century, and it is still not finished. Construction goes on as funding permits, now and then, barely keeping up with decay and the occasional fire and vandalism. St. John the Divine is not just a cathedral, either, it is the second largest cathedral and fourth largest church building of the world, far outranking the one in Cologne. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_church_buildings_in_the_world for references. Note that the one ranking right after St. John, the Basilica of Our Lady of Licheń, took just 10 years to build.

    An unfinished cathedral will pretty much just sit there for decades waiting for work to be continued. This would not work for a space program, I think.

  • Eniac November 5, 2010, 9:17

    I am with Pete on the futility of planning for decades or centuries. Heck, even the five-year plan has gotten a really bad reputation…

    The best you can do is get a program started with a good vision and process, and then hope that the former will keep attracting enough funds and the latter will permit actual progress to be made. That’s how the cathedrals were built. Come to think of it, it is also how lasting countries are built. On a constitution, not a plan.

  • Kareem Elashmawy November 24, 2010, 10:25

    I think the DARPA plan is a good step from the government towards interstellar flight, especially with the current status of NASA and the rest of the space industry. It seems to me that DARPA is looking to develop and economic plan to enable interstellar flight and support it through private and public means. The one thing I find most interesting about this plan is its target for my generation and those following as stated by “Paul Eremenko, DARPA coordinator for the study. ‘We endeavor to excite several generations to commit to the research and development of breakthrough technologies…'” (DARPA 12). By targeting a young audience as well, I believe that they are truly looking at this in a long range view, since it will be offering incentive and opportunities for the following generations. As an example consider the amount of people working in the aerospace industry who were inspired by NASA.