If you were starting today, how would you go about making plans to build a ship capable of interstellar travel? That’s the question debated by the attendees at a DARPA conference last year on a project called “The 100 Year Starship Study.” At this year’s Arisia, several of the Conference attendees presented a panel on it, leading to a fascinating hour of considering many different questions raised by the problem.
[Disclaimer: the following is from my own notes on the panel, so I can't say who made which comments - sorry! Any errors of fact or opinion are my own.]
The goal of the 100 Year Starship Study is to “create an organization that can make the tools to create the tools to build a starship.” Think of the Wright brothers making plans that would get them to the ISS. And to build a starship would require more than just the team of elite scientists so often proposed by science fiction. It’s a massive investment of infrastructure, economics and culture on a scale that is hard to imagine in the real world.
The Apollo program was a similar jump in project scale, that, among other things, created management systems and structures that are still in use today in large organizations.
When fans talk about starships and interstellar travel, we mostly seem to be discussing technology, physics, and the ramifications of those two forces on the starship’s crew: FTL travel, sleeper ships, colony ships, etc. These questions leave aside more than half of the issues debated by the conference, which had 6 tracks, with only 3 addressing the mechanics and physiology of interstellar flight.
Time/distance solutions: Discussing propulsion systems both currently possible, and completely exotic, as well as what kind of ship and crew would be needed, depending on the propulsion system. Here, the possibilities are broken into fast ship vs slow ship, and manned ship vs robot ship (familiar to anyone who reads or watches space travel SF). Robot ships solve a lot of medical and ethical problems – but what does a robot ship do when it gets to wherever? And can it really be designed to operate for so very long on its own, allowing preprogrammed fixes for all possible problems?
Habitat and Environment: How do you build a ship that will keep people not only alive but mentally, socially and physically healthy for a trip that could last anywhere from years to centuries? The minimum crew complement for an interstellar ship, to create a viable society, is not hundreds, but thousands: somewhere between 10K and 100K (interstellar ships can be really, really big!). So you don’t have to be a genius specialist to get a berth, you just have to have some useful skills or knowledge. And probably be willing to go and never come back.
Biology and space medicine: microgravity is a big problem here, since humans can’t live in it for more than a few years at the outside. Space medicine on the ISS has found a few more problems, as well. Then of course there’s the biology of what you find when you get there: we have no idea whether alien plants and animals will be digestible to us, or whether our plants and animals can grow in an alien biosphere; whether alien microbes can kill us, or our microbes might kill them. (most space travel SF I’ve read pays very little attention to these issues)
Legal issues: how do we determine who owns and who governs whatever we find or build out there, let alone what we bring back? (The classic story “Far Centaurus” was mentioned in this context, with the idea that sleeper ship colonists would have to be guaranteed a share in the event, or likelihood, that their mission would be leapfrogged by later tech)
Philosophical and Ethical issues: What are the rights and wrongs of sending people to live in distant space for generations, and of occupying worlds that probably have life already on them? Would this be one of those situations where all the colonists end up being recruited from the poor, because they have nothing to lose?
Communicating the Vision: creating a cultural, political and social framework that will be supportive of the massive commitment required to build starships. One of the panelists noted that in the NY Times’s write up of the conference, they used the term “starship” without any explanation. The Times assumed that the reading audience already knows what a starship is, and accepts the idea and the inevitability of interstellar travel; this would probably not have been the case even 50 years ago. However, as much as the general public might accept the idea for our grandchildren, there would, of course, be huge obstacles- mainly political – to getting the people of Earth to actually commit on a large scale to moving the starship project forward. Which leads to:
One more issue that wasn’t given its own track, but seems to have woven itself through all of them: Economics- how do you raise the money for a project that will be 3 to 6 orders of magnitude larger than Apollo? No one government could afford to do this, no matter how rich the country. The most popular idea, or the most realistic, is that technology developed during different stages of the project can be turned to commercial use, to generate revenue for the next stage.
So if you’re building a world that involves interstellar travel, how have you addressed all these broad questions?