DARPA seeks help for interstellar starship

The defense research agency, in conjunction with NASA, has put out a request for information for a project it hopes could result in a starship capable of long-distance space travel.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read

DARPA wants to go to the stars.

Yesterday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency issued a call for concepts for a 100-year starship study program. The idea? To motivate research that could potentially "develop a viable and sustainable model for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make interstellar space travel practicable and feasible."

Flickr user Marcin Wichary

This, one can imagine, is the kind of feasibility study that would have been necessary decades ahead of time if the starships at the center of shows like "Star Trek," "Babylon 5," and "Deep Space 9" had really existed.

DARPA may be peopled with dreamers, but it also has a pretty impressive track record. Its predecessor, ARPA, played a central role in the creation of the Internet, and among many other accomplishments, DARPA researchers helped inspire autonomous cars via the agency's DARPA Grand Challenge, and they helped bring about stealth-fighter technology.

DARPA did not respond to a request for comment.

So while some are certainly going to scoff at the notion of a 100-year project (PDF file) to explore interstellar space, DARPA's ambitions should not be taken lightly. Particularly given some of the reasons behind the would-be project, and the steady decline in America's development of young engineers, mathematicians, and technologists.

"The genesis of the 100 Year Starship Study is to foster a rebirth of a sense of wonder among students, academia, industry, researchers, and the general population to consider 'why not,'" DARPA wrote in its request for information, "and to encourage them to tackle whole new classes of research and development related to all the issues surrounding long-duration, long-distance spaceflight. DARPA contends that the useful, unanticipated consequences of such research will have benefit to the Department of Defense and to NASA, and well as the private and commercial sector."

But because today's financial realities preclude the massive amount of investment that would be required to undertake a very long-term project like the development of a starship, DARPA is understandably turning to outside interests to begin the work. The agency said is is looking for "ideas for an organization, business model, and approach appropriate for a self-sustaining investment vehicle. The respondent must focus on flexible yet robust mechanisms by which an endowment can be created and sustained, wholly devoid of government subsidy or control, and by which worthwhile undertakings--in the sciences, engineering, humanities, or the arts--may be awarded in pursuit of the vision of interstellar flight."

This calls to mind, of course, large-scale competitions like those put on by the X Prize Foundation. On the other hand, the phrase "wholly devoid of government subsidy" would seem to prohibit the offering of a substantial prize to someone deemed successful at answering DARPA's requirements. It did say that it expects to offer someone not more than several hundred thousand dollars in start-up expenses in order to meet its requirements.

In particular, those requirements include: "Long-term survivability over a century-long time horizon;" "Self-governance, independent of government participation or oversight;" "Self-sustainment, independent of government funding;" and "Relevance to the goal of moving humanity toward the goal of interstellar travel, including related technological, biological, social, economic, and other issues."

These are grand goals, and it's hard to imagine anyone reading these words being alive to see the conclusion of a project like this. Yet without such ambitions, our society would almost certainly lose the benefits that could come from the realization of such goals, benefits that come from the spread of government-sponsored technology to educational institutions and private industry--and from the wonder such projects inspire in people young and old. This may be wishful thinking on DARPA's part, but how can we not wish to go along for the ride?