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100 Year Starship Organization Launches

Today was to have been devoted to antimatter, continuing the discussion not only of how to produce the stuff on Earth or harvest it in nearby space, but how to create the kind of propulsion system that could tap its enormous energies. But the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence released its first public announcement about the 100 Year Starship yesterday, and I want to go right to that story given the interest that grew out of last year’s starship symposium in Orlando. I’ll get back to antimatter, then, and particularly the provocative work of Ronan Keane and Wei-Ming Zhang on magnetic nozzles for propulsion systems, on Monday.

For today, though, let’s talk about pushing out into the galaxy. The Tau Zero Foundation has a particular interest in the 100 Year Starship organization because our friends at Icarus Interstellar, who are re-thinking the 1970s Project Daedalus design, were partners in the winning proposal, which was called “An Inclusive, Audacious Journey Transforms Life Here on Earth and Beyond.” I have no experience with the Dorothy Jemison Foundation or, for that matter, the third partner in the winning proposal, the Foundation for Enterprise Development, but our long relationship with Icarus Interstellar has demonstrated the expertise and commitment this band of scientists, engineers and enthusiasts brings to the task.

You’ll recall that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) put up the seed funding for what was to become a non-government entity with a focus on the long term, one that is designed to promote advanced capabilities for interstellar flight over the next hundred years. The 100 Year Starship name refers, then, not to a mission that lasts a hundred years but to an entity robust enough to grow the interstellar idea through the coming century, the hope being that somewhere around the early part of the 22nd Century, our technologies may have reached the point where we can launch a mission to another star.

Mae Jemison, a former astronaut who flew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, puts it this way:

“Yes, it can be done. Our current technology arc is sufficient. 100 Year Starship is about building the tools we need to travel to another star system in the next hundred years. We’re embarking on a journey across time and space. If my language is dramatic, it is because this project is monumental. This is a global aspiration. And each step of the way, its progress will benefit life on earth. Our team is both invigorated and sobered by the confidence DARPA has in us to start an independent, private initiative to help make interstellar travel a reality.”

Whether you were able to get to the 100 Year Starship symposium last year in Orlando or not, be aware that a second symposium is in the works for Houston on September 13-16 of this year. The organization’s press release says that the symposium will from here on out be an annual event that will examine not only the scientific and engineering challenges of starflight but the multidisciplinary questions starflight raises in economics, philosophy and culture. You can sign up to be notified about further symposium news here. And the call for papers has just gone out as well.

I’m pleased in particular to see that the 100 Year Starship is to include a scientific research institute called The Way which will place an emphasis on long-term science and technology issues. Readers of Centauri Dreams know that long-term thinking is an obsession of mine, as the necessity of looking beyond immediate material and financial returns to the kind of future we can build through sacrifice and dedication has never been more clear. On that score, I appreciate the quote from columnist and critic John Mason Brown that’s found on the organization’s website: “The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose.”

Indeed, and what a purpose it is. A starship is the ultimate in long-term thinking, a challenge to our science, our engineering, our conception of ourselves. What interstellar flight asks of us is whether we are prepared to make a commitment that reaches well beyond our own generation, to take the first steps forward on a journey whose end most, if not all of us, will never see. It is gratifying to see the idea moving forward, and the Tau Zero Foundation sends congratulations to all involved in the new organization.

Related: 100-Year Starship: Mae Jemison reaches for the stars, in BBC Future. From which this quote from Mae Jemison:

We are not saying our organization, is going to be the one that necessarily launches a mission to the stars in a next 100 years. We want to be the little piece that crystalizes out, the effort, the energy, and the capacity to make sure that the capabilities exist within in the next 100 years in case somebody wants to launch a mission.

And this:

I think that people need an adrenalin rush. Folks need something aspirational, they need to do something that is hard. That’s what ignites the imagination. I grew up during the Apollo-era, in the 1960s. When I was a little girl: I thought when I had an opportunity to go into space, I thought I would at a minimum be working on Mars, or another large planet because we were doing all of these incredible things. But we stagnated, because we didn’t continue that push. We started to get a little bit timid. Timidity does not inspire bold acts.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Stefan Tubman May 18, 2012, 10:11

    This is really great, I am looking into the Icarus project – even wrote a paper which includes the task demand since I am with logistics crew. I hope they consider the Haulya (Anglicised) propulsion proposal with a suitable powerplant in thier designs – probably wont look anything like that in a 100 years though.

  • James Benford May 18, 2012, 12:26

    Jemison says “Our current technology arc is sufficient.” Really? what arc is that? Chemical rockets? Better to realize that there is little being done toward starships, and what is afoot is private volunteer work; i.e., Icarus Interstellar. We need much more.

  • Greg May 18, 2012, 17:07

    “We started to get a little bit timid. Timidity does not inspire bold acts.”

    So true, we can’t worry about getting a bloody nose whenever we are exploring deep space. Unfortunately I think we have become to timid in the way we think and live.

  • Jean-Pierre Le Rouzic May 18, 2012, 17:15

    About current technology: I am not a scientist but when I try to compute which fraction of a mass must be converted in energy to enable it reach Alpha Centaury in 50 years, I arrive at 0.5% whatever the payload mass. Fission is a bit short of providing that, but fusion can do it (H to He transforms 0,7% of its mass in energy), if only we knew how to create a manageable fusion engine. However creating a fusion based rocket engine is not related to create a power plant like ITER and others try to demonstrate, it’s simply that micro fusion bombs are very dangerous in many way.

    So IMO as long the goal is Alpha Centauri in 50 years, this is an engineering and social problem, it’s not a theoretical problem.

    Indeed this is for Alpha Centauri, for example even for Barnard star, it’s a different story, even fusion is not enough to reach it in 50 years. But maybe there are more efficient fusion reactions than H to He.

    This is not my field, I may be completely wrong, I write this just for the pleasure to discuss :-)


  • Adam Johnson May 18, 2012, 18:04

    Speaking of last year’s conference, I’ve been eagerly awaiting publication of the proposal to use a ‘unique kind of gravitational assist’ to launch a ship up to 0.1C, an idea that was mentioned in several articles at the time, including the New York Times piece.

    It was my understanding that the proposal, along with many others, would be published in the BIS Journal, but I’ve yet to see anything come of it.

    As a science fiction writer, I’m dying to get into the nitty-gritty as I’ve been at work for some time now on a novel inspired by the 100 Year Starship program, but I’m someone who needs to get into the real detail to ground the thing.

  • Joy May 18, 2012, 18:35

    “When I was a little girl: I thought when I had an opportunity to go into space, I thought I would at a minimum be working on Mars”

    Me too. At this point I would be willing to crew on a one way colonization mission, and not worry too much about the radiation shielding. The risk of dying of cancer is 1/3rd for people living sheltered lives, spacers should be happy to brave an increased risk. Any sane person over 50 has gotten over the youthful idea of immortality. What is truly frightening is the idea that one is most likely to die without having accomplished anything of lasting significance.

  • bill May 18, 2012, 19:03

    With regards to Jean-Pierre Le Rouzic comment.

    While this may all be very doable as he states, I’m beginning to wonder whether or not A Centauri is really the place to go even with the technology to go there. So far nothing that I read suggest that the star system has anything going for it with regards to being in any way habitable. It seems that all the planets they say they have found their are way too massive, not situated properly, and other undesirable characteristics. What do others think about this star system or Barnard as a destination ?

  • Paul Gilster May 18, 2012, 20:59

    bill writes:

    It seems that all the planets they say they have found their are way too massive, not situated properly, and other undesirable characteristics.

    It’s too early to say, Bill — we have no detected planets around Centauri A, B or Proxima yet. We should have something fairly soon because there are several intensive hunts for planets there ongoing (around A and B, that is), but so far we just don’t know if any rocky worlds might be found in the habitable zone of any of these stars. The same is true of Barnard’s Star.

  • Kelvin Long May 18, 2012, 21:10

    to Adam Johnson,
    The 100YSS-I papers are indeed with the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. They are all currently being processed and reviewed and I expect the first papers to be published by early summer. The lead author of each paper should expect to hear from the journal soon.

    Kelvin Long
    Editor, JBIS

  • Michael Spencer May 19, 2012, 7:51

    Perhaps Dr. Jemison was thinking a little more globally than perhaps Dr. Benford realizes at first blush…sixty years from Wright to the moon certainly initializes a hell of an arc.

    As to what current research will convincingly contribute to the ultimate trip, we can’t say. There is a lot of tangential research happening, and as I see it, the big solutions we need are likely to come from left field. The view from 2050 will look different as we will be able to connect the little dots now underway.

    There is much frustration amongst the small cadre of folks haunted by the possibilities, including me.

  • philw1776 May 19, 2012, 8:26

    Mars cancer risks are greatly overstated according to actual #s from recent MIT research. Background rad danger threshold may be 50X higher than currently thought. Read the article for some space oriented caveats however…


  • Ole Burde May 19, 2012, 12:35

    The radiation problem on Mars or in space ,have to be considered as part of a general isolation problem , including thermal isolation , outgassing, radiation and electric isolation from the ISM .
    A great number of alternating layers (lamination) of metal foil , Boron foam and perhabs good old poliurethane foam , might do the job . On the other hand , to prevent longterm outgassing it could be necesarry to trap escaping gasses (if we talk about a hundred years ) by letting them freeze in a thick “sand-like” layer of porous material build up in mobile modules which can be returned to the habitat . The real design challenge is to integrate all these demands into a single isolation system , and hopefully build it all from moon-or asteroid materials .

  • Denver May 20, 2012, 20:01

    Where is Admiral Heinlein when you really need him? (apologies to Messrs. Niven and Benford)

  • Paul May 21, 2012, 13:01

    I enjoy visiting here now and then just to see what people are thinking.

    I will be a fan and advocate of interstellar travel as long as I live.
    But, if, as Stephen Hawkins suggests, we will only be able to do it “the slow way”, then the Empire is dead.
    If we cannot travel FTL, then interstellar missions would still be possible, and just as important, and perhaps totally necessary.
    But they would be limited to generational ships, people or robots in cold storage, on a desperate one way trip. And with relativisitc effects, out of touch as the galaxy evolves beyond them.
    Goodbye Enterprise, Federation, and most that we had hoped for. Humans made like ourselves can only realistically hope to live on a planet that we are designed for, an Earth, or an Earth Too. And there are probably even some of them out there! But even the closest Earth Too may be 50 light years distant, perhaps more.
    No wonder astronomers are unable to see any signs of a galactic civilization anywhere. No wheels, no deals.

  • ljk May 21, 2012, 15:21

    Paul said on May 21, 2012 at 13:01:

    “I will be a fan and advocate of interstellar travel as long as I live.
    But, if, as Stephen Hawkins suggests, we will only be able to do it “the slow way”, then the Empire is dead.”

    I really wish Dr. Hawking would stick to subjects he is an expert on, at least publicly. Or even better, not have the media treat every one of his pronouncements as Sent from On High (cue angels signing). Or even better better, have the general public be a bit more discriminating and do some homework when it comes to having an expert say something is so.

    Yeah, I know, I am wishing for a lot here.

    Hawking’s 2010 pronouncements about ETI visiting Earth and causing us grief was a scenario straight out of the 1996 SF film Independence Day.

    The point is, anyone could say what he said, but because it came from Dr. Hawking, suddenly it is The Truth.

    Here are my responses to his pronouncement:


    and here:


    Of course even the masses only agree with what they really want to hear from the good professor.

    When Hawking said aliens may be bad, the masses were in high agreement, thanks in no small part to decades of scary stories about monstrous creatures from beyond the stars coming to conquer and eat us poor humans.

    But when the same Dr. Hawking said that no deity was required to create the Universe, suddenly that crazy cosmologist from England didn’t know what he was talking about!

    So, Paul – unless Stephen Hawking has some special knowledge about interstellar propulsion that others who have spent far more time on the subject do not, do not pack up your things and head on home just yet.

  • Paul May 22, 2012, 12:38

    I won’t be packing up my things. Hawking was incidental to my comments.
    Neither do I view Hawking’s musings on aliens as particularly seminal. I think even those of us here well below the top tier thinkers were a bit puzzled that Hawking would go off like that.
    My point was really about FTL. Because, childish imaginings and SciFi of my youth aside, the galaxy without it is a very different place. Without FTL, the goal of interstellar flight becomes a shot in the dark ploy for survival. Yes, we need all of our eggs out of one basket. Something Hawking agrees with. But the “dream” was for something more. The Dream was/is for a vast community of souls here in the dark, as envisioned in “Contact”. Even Hawking held out hope for “worm holes”, for many years, but seems late in life to despair of them.
    Without FTL, we are really just scattering seeds to the wind, and godspeed.
    That said, I totally support sub-light technology development. I greatly admire and rely upon the minds and ideas that are seen on this site. I am here to read with people “who have spent far more time on the subject” of interstellar travel than Hawking.