With the end of the space shuttle program, NASA can no longer send human beings to space. But the space organization and the military are looking at new solutions for shooting for the moon—and not just not our moon—with a new outlandish project. They're rethinking how to fund and sustain an organization that can launch humans into space beyond even our own solar system. The 100 Year Starship Study led by the military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA, is intended to jump-start a project of realizing the deep space dream, by putting the groundwork in place for a space project that spans generations and might ultimately result in sending a colony ship to neighboring stars.
"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,'" writes DARPA. The $500,000 grant will be given to any group or individual submitting the most promising plan to design and finance a research and development program leading to interstellar travel by early next century.
DARPA, the $3 billion-dollar agency whose long history of "high risk-high payoff" bets has lead to the personal computer, the Internet, the Berkeley Unix system, and many of NASA's gadgets, says this effort can catalyze "whole new classes of research and development related to ... long duration, long distance spaceflight," not to mention benefits for NASA and the Department of Defense. The winner is expected to be announced in November.
The Starship Study is one of the handful of bright spots for human space travel as NASA faces tough budgetary times. The 2012 budget is slated to be cut by $276 million and frozen for the next five years, while the private sector is taking over human space transport following the retirement of the Space Shuttle program. Deep space travel is one of those inspirational, long term ventures that may keep the fires lit under our most visionary scientists (and, necessarily, their congressional funders) for some time to come.
Those looking for a quick payoff to the Starship Study—or any other interstellar long shot—should look elsewhere. This is a project that will—per its name—take generations to get off the ground, and several more to reach its destination (barring some rapid advancements in prolonging human life). A paper presented at the International Astronautical Congress last year estimates that an interstellar human colony ship won't launch until the year 2200, with probes to our nearest stellar neighbor Alpha Centauri not launching until 2500.
But that study was based on historical data about historic energy trends and societal priorities to predict technological progress, and does not account for revolutionary breakthroughs. Maybe some long-shot bets will pay off.
[Image: From 2001: A Space Odyssey]