What next for the 100 Year Starship Study? NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will make the call, as Tau Zero founder Marc Millis told Alan Boyle in his recent interview. To talk to Boyle, Millis donned virtual garb and appeared in Second Life in robotic form, but the interview is now available as a podcast on BlogTalkRadio and iTunes. I’ll send you there for the discussion in full, but do note that Boyle talked to Millis about starflight before the show and has made an edited transcript of that conversation available on Cosmic Log. The quotes I use below are from the earlier talk, but do pick up the podcast and listen to the whole thing.

Where DARPA goes next is to make a decision about awarding the funds remaining from the $1 million originally put into the project. About $500,000 is available, and Centauri Dreams speculates that DARPA will be more than happy to allocate the funds and be done with them, thus removing ‘starship funding’ from a budget always sensitive to congressional oversight. The plan all along has been to put these funds forward as seed money to the organization that can carry forth the 100 Year Starship idea. In other words, DARPA is hoping to boost interstellar flight by supporting a long-term effort that will find financing and develop technology that one day leads to the stars.

Millis has previously calculated that an actual starship is as much as two centuries away considering historical patterns of energy production and use, but projections like these are always approximations. The important point is that work on a starship has to be approached rationally. Given that we have numerous propulsion options, all of them with huge engineering issues, we have to investigate which of them might evolve to the point where a deep space mission is possible. And we have to take into account huge peripheral matters like equipment reliability over long time-frames, communications at interstellar distances and the matter of human longevity.

Research is invariably incremental, and considering the early state of our knowledge, it will proceed by identifying the key issues and laying a foundation now to chip away at them:

The important issue to figure out today is to make sure we have a sane comparison of the real challenges and the real state of the art, so we’re proceeding wisely here. Then, from that, ask, “OK, if that’s where we are, what can we start tomorrow to chip away at those issues?” We can’t build the starship tomorrow, but we can identify the correct questions to ask, and begin seeking answers to those questions. When it looks more promising, and the advancements are there, fine.

Those advancements may be a long time coming, and there is an inherent danger in impatience. An organization built to last a century or more crosses generations and requires a sustained vision (I’ll be talking about exactly that in an upcoming dialogue with Michael Michaud, to be published here within the next two weeks or so). A public saturated with immediate gratification will not support such projects, but a public educated in the problems involved and the magnitude of their solutions may begin to see things in a long-term context. Amortize interstellar research over two centuries and the costs are more manageable and can grow with the economy. Along the way, as DARPA keeps emphasizing, we should be looking for tangible, near-term spinoffs.

Lately I’ve been reading the new edition of Robert Zubrin’s The Case for Mars, which energetically describes the thinking behind ‘Mars Direct,’ a way to reach Mars with existing technology and with far less expense than many government projections have indicated. But we all know that even Mars, that close and astrobiologically tantalizing world, is still out of reach for the present because of political and economic factors. An interstellar mission is a step so far beyond these tentative steps in our Solar System as to dwarf them entirely. Why, then, look ahead to traveling between the stars when we’re still so early in the game in our own system?

The ultimate, highest-priority benefit of star flight is the survival of the human species beyond the fate of our own solar system and our home planet. In the meantime, the progress we make to try to turn all this stuff into a reality will result in profound improvements in energy conversion, transportation, self-supporting life support — things that would be very useful for life on Earth. And then there’s the social aspect. This effort can give us hope for a better future, expand our opportunities — and hopefully give people a frontier to conquer, rather than being left with no option other than to conquer each other.

Can human cultures pull together to manage major questions of species growth and survival? It’s only one of the questions interstellar flight raises that Boyle and Millis tackle in the longer interview. What we can say is that building a space-based infrastructure is an obvious precursor to an interstellar probe, and getting economically to low-Earth orbit is an obvious precursor to moving outward into the Solar System. Each of these challenges has its advocates and interstellar flight will depend on a satisfactory resolution of all of them. But the challenges of starflight are so immense that chipping away at them now helps to lay a groundwork that will become the roadmap to follow when we do achieve the technologies needed to reach a star.