NASA’s Ames Director Announces “100 Year Starship”

by Jason Rhian on October 20, 2010

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The Director of NASA’s Ames Center, Pete Worden has announced an initiative to move space flight to the next level. This plan, dubbed the “Hundred Year Starship,” has received $100,000 from NASA and $ 1 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He made his announcement on Oct. 16. Worden is also hoping to include wealthy investors in the project. NASA has yet to provide any official details on the project.

Worden also has expressed his belief that the space agency was now directed toward settling other planets. However, given the fact that the agency has been redirected toward supporting commercial space firms, how this will be achieved has yet to be detailed. Details that have been given have been vague and in some cases contradictory.

The Ames Director went on to expound how these efforts will seek to emulate the fictional starships seen on the television show Star Trek. He stated that the public could expect to see the first prototype of a new propulsion system within the next few years. Given that NASA’s FY 2011 Budget has had to be revised and has yet to go through Appropriations, this time estimate may be overly-optimistic.

One of the ideas being proposed is a microwave thermal propulsion system. This form of propulsion would eliminate the massive amount of fuel required to send crafts into orbit. The power would be “beamed” to the space craft. Either a laser or microwave emitter would heat the propellant, thus sending the vehicle aloft. This technology has been around for some time, but has yet to be actually applied in a real-world vehicle.

The project is run by Dr. Kevin L.G. Parkin who described it in his PhD thesis and invented the equipment used. Along with him are David Murakami and Creon Levit. One of the previous workers on the program went on to found his own company in the hopes of commercializing the technology used.

For Worden, the first locations that man should visit utilizing this revolutionary technology would not be the moon or even Mars. Rather he suggests that we should visit the red planet’s moons, Phobos and Deimos. Worden believes that astronauts can be sent to Mars by 2030 for around $10 billion – but only one way. The strategy appears to resemble the ‘Faster-Better-Cheaper’ craze promoted by then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin during the 1990s.

DARPA is a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense whose purview is the development of new technology to be used by the U.S. military. Some previous efforts that the agency has undertaken include the first hypertext system, as well as other computer-related developments that are used everyday. DARPA has worked on space-related projects before, working on light-weight satellites (LIGHTSAT), the X-37 space plane, the FALCON Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle (HCV) and a number of other programs.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA has been involved with a number of advanced technology projects. Image Credit: DARPA

Source: Kurzweil

Roen October 22, 2010 at 6:46 AM

@NEXUS: No sending probes is not part of my issue with this. My issue is with manned missions in a time where it’s frivolous to think that far ahead. Even spending a million dollars on thinking about it is that much less money we can throw at preventing extinction.

I said already – “What NASA is doing right now is awesome. We’ve learned more dollar for dollar by sending cheap robotic equipment to study the planet by proxy.”

and

“FYI, yes, I do support this. Probes are cheaper, safer and can travel faster than any human crew. The sheer logistics involved with sustaining a human crew for the length of time it will require is massively prohibitive.”

With respect, to allude that I am overlooking exploration of our system entirely is unfounded and unfair.

“In my opinion, if you want to save the planet you can’t do much BETTER than to throw money at space research.”

I understand the view that research into manned missions has the potential of a spinoff effect, I am not denying that. However, direct research will always have a much greater payoff simply because that is where the focus is. Spin off knowledge is too random and there is no guarantee that there will be any spinoff knowledge from that. Manned missions will always have a much, much greater cost than probes. As stated in my quote above, NASA’s shift to smaller/cheaper has also yielded much more for the money than researching directly into sending people to Mars. Again, I already stated this.

You’ve communicated to me with respect, which is why I am reciprocating such back. I thought things had calmed down and feel your last statement as unnecessary. I recognize where my fault is and thought I had corrected that since my last message to TACITUS. I backed off first, he backed off second and the issue is over. He’s moved on from our argument and so have I. Entering an argument that is now over will only serve to start it back up again. Leave it be please?

@Maxwell: I have to admit a little confusion regarding your reply. I am uncertain what precipitated “But what is the point of gathering data if its never going to be used?” and what followed.

Talking about manned missions, directing any money toward manned missions is taking away what precious little time we have left. I know I said we had until 2055, but that is when all of Earth is projected to be dead. Not when it’s actually too late to do anything.

Over the period of 26 the next years will be a steady degradation of conditions that will accelerate the more time we waste until the entire ecosystem collapses. Once that happens life will die off at an incredible rate, Earth’s land masses will become dessert and the oceans will steadily disappear. That’s just the natural processes.

Now we get into the human factor and the tradition of killing each other. When conditions get bad enough (which will be sooner than later) people will start killing each other off for food, water and other resources necessary for survival. The social systems we have developed over time will collapse, so will governments, first the smaller ones then that big ones. I understand that the larger nations may get together to stem the violence and it would succeed for a while. But even that will break down as resources dwindle. Human mortality due to violence, starvation and disease will ramp up until our population is small enough that contact between groups re sporadic. The violence will drop very fast, but the deaths will not stop, because we will still have a massive increase disease infant mortality and the inability for women to carry children. But by that time it will be far too late.

I don’t know how long it will take before governments start falling, but it will be a number of years before 2036, simply due to human nature.

It’s all about time, money and the ability to put it all together. We have little time, in 2004 it was reported that we had 30 years before this problem becomes irreversible. 6 years have ticked away leaving us 24 years before it really is too late and the runaway greenhouse boil the oceans away.

Remember the poll I took here? I think the last tally was 14 people not completely concerned to 5 people who are. That’s 64.3%. A recent poll was done in the US, and 54% Americans are still not convinced. Please feel free to look over the messages and tally it yourself. Take another look at the recent stats. Hey this is a science forum and all claims need separate verification, so go to it if you like.

Spoodle58 October 22, 2010 at 8:27 AM

Networked computers (i.e. the internet) are a spin off from the space program.
What if money was not made available to fund the research in the 1960s.
That is just one of the many what ifs.

Thankfully people back then had the long term thinking to fund space research projects and they do today. I firmly agree that funding space related projects is good for humanity, we are always quick to forget or set aside the benefits of such funding.

S58

Roen October 22, 2010 at 8:43 AM

@Spoodle58: Were you referring to my most recent message?

Spoodle58 October 22, 2010 at 10:32 AM

@ Roen
No, Im just stating my opinion on the article and why I find it worthy to fund.

Aqua October 22, 2010 at 10:57 AM

How does one ‘surf’ an expanding magnetic field? With a vessel capable of generating VERY powerful opposing or oppositely charged fields. How is that vessel powered? Nuclear of course…

Roen October 22, 2010 at 11:15 AM

@Spoodle58: The difference is that in the 1960′s we didn’t face climate change. Sure we faced nuclear war, but nuclear war was a fear that didn’t require money and research power to solve, and the situation was not as desperate. At least then we were in a bit of a holding pattern. we could just let the situation stay as a status quo and all life here on Earth would go on. We had time to mess around with other things like the Moon mission.

Today is very different. We are not in a holding pattern, we cannot keep the status quo, and we definitely don’t have time. Add to that the random nature of spinoff discovery from research into frivolous pursuits, as opposed to direct research, and you have the recipe of a dead world in less than 50 years.

24 years is all we have left to reverse this climate change. But remember, as we near that mark the more desperate the situation gets, exponentially compounding the problem itself. I want you to discredit me. I want someone, anyone to show me, with evidence, where this is wrong. Nothing would please me more than to know that this bigger issue is a non-issue. But anyone, who does try to dog up data to counter my points will find the support instead.

Even a Mars colony would be too little too late. There is no guarantee that enough people will be saved to carry on the species. Remember humanity had come close to extinction a number of times in the remote past. This is why we have such small genetic variation as compared to other animals. We as a species can no longer afford to come close to extinction. There will not be enough genetic diversity for the human species to be viable.

Roen October 22, 2010 at 11:16 AM

Besides, colonization and starships really can wait until after we solved climate change. Not the other way around.

LloydD October 22, 2010 at 5:07 PM

There are many schools of thought as to what we should do first in this gigantic unuverse of ours. Fix our little corner or go to the stars.

I say we go to the stars at any cost. Doing this might save the Earth. And I have to emphasize the word might because we have little time left.

Just our very existance on the Earth continues to change it for the worse. We take in food and air and exude polutants. We use raw materials and foul the land, waters and atmosphere. We change things. Because of our vast numbers we simply overwelm nature’s natural cleansing cycles. And we still breed non-stop as nature programed us to do.

I understand that even right now we could use 2 Earths to house our population and keep everything under control. But, by the year 2030 we will need 4.

Space is a vacume and the Eath is under great pressure. We need an escape valve to reduce our population on Earth and give our children an opportunity to live at least a well as us.

I know one thing for sure about man. Sometimes we do what we want to but, we always do what we have to. Because of this we are not extinct.

I think the near future may not be pretty but in the long run we will do OK.

Man will be a space faring people regardless if we want to or not.

I like the idea of a microwave space ship.

Roen October 22, 2010 at 6:05 PM

@LloydD: If you had intended the examples you gave to show why we really shouldn’t be allowed off this rock then I’d say good job and add our tendency to enslave or kill other sentient creatures (so far just us).

But that won’t happen. Even if it were to happen by 2030, so few people would make it off Earth that when Earth does die a by less than two decades after, and the rest of us with it, there would be so little genetic variation left that we would no longer be viable.

To top that off, resources are forcing more and more violence and unrest as we get nearer to irreversibility, that governments would not be able to keep up with it. As those resources get less and less faster and faster (exponentially) the financial systems will crash far sooner than 2030.

As stated at the very beginning of these comments (but with a nicer tone now), you and everyone else who feels we will be saved by this starship idea really need to rethink it all and start paying more attention to the facts… and you don’t have time to decide.

Spoodle58 October 23, 2010 at 1:55 AM

Roen, I can’t say this any nicer but your not doing justice to your opinions. Your arguments will sway peoples opinions away from you.

Roen October 23, 2010 at 8:08 AM

@Spoodle58:
Is that what the truth does. Odd that.

Dave Finton October 23, 2010 at 3:38 PM

I have to admit, when I made my original reply, I kinda thought there would be a few follow-ups and then the thread would die. As such, I hadn’t checked back in a couple of days, thinking the issue was settled, only to find a thread that had over 90 comments in it (roughly half of them by Roen, who was the poster I originally responded to). Such is the way of the internet.

Anyways, I fully support space exploration, and I also think colonization is ultimately going to be a path we’ll need to go down at some point. This will need to be done partly by commercial ventures (obvious example: space mining) and also by government for the pure science aspect of things. We’re reaching something pretty close to a zenith by staying here on Earth, and if we want to move forward as a civilization, space colonization is pretty much our only ticket out of town.

GBendt October 23, 2010 at 4:49 PM

What the heck brings someone to ideas like “the universe is ours”?

We are just ONE of some 500 MILLION different lifeforms on planet Earth. How can we claim the right that everything around US belongs to US? This is wishful thinking.
There is an attitude around that we can attain whatever we want by simply wishing to do it and working hard for it. But it is obvious that you can´t row a boat from Europe to America with nothing but a match for an oar.

Almost all states in this world are currently in the severe danger of running out of money and means they require to sustain their function.Within a few years from now, we might not be able recognize the powers and certainties we have ever been used to.
Those who are dreaming of being something like the ‘masters of the Universe’ will find that the Universe will have a different point of view on that. The Universe does not care about us. It wont be forgiving. If we can´t handle our world in a responsible manner, there won´t be annything nice to handle left for us any more.

Currently we do not even habe the means to support and further develop manned space travel in low earth orbit. Starting a Space shuttle with a crew of seven and 12 tons of supply to the ISS costs 500 million dollars. Such amounts of money are not availble any more for that purpose. As I read that people think that space colonisation is the future of mankind, I feel that some folks are sort of losing their sense of reality.
Some seem to fall in love with the idea that the Universe was created for our purpose and needs. We might learn that we need to meet the needs and demands the Universe and the world poses on us.

Roen October 24, 2010 at 12:21 AM

@GBendt: Isn’t it damned sad that it took 93 comments for 1, that’s ONE, other person to have as solid a grasp of reality. You’re preaching to the deaf, though. According to at least one person, trying to detail the most basic of facts causes people to decide to bury their heads in their ego’s instead of getting their priorities in the proper order.

My advice to you, GBendt? Give up while you still have some patience left. Spend the next couple years getting yourself self sufficient. Because, after the last few days here, I realize that crap is going to go bad a lot quicker than I indicated above and these people here for the most part will be dead within a couple decades. Such is the price of dreaming too much and caring too little.

QuantumEntangled October 24, 2010 at 9:28 AM

Both sides of the argument raise interesting points. Indeed, the heat of the conversation seems to have calmed down a little. Perhaps cooler heads can reach some understanding.

On one side of the argument, I would agree that priorities do appear to be a little out of place. A declaration of a starship in 100 years does seem ludicrous to me when we don’t even know that our race will survive the next few score years. Even if that was not the case, I also see difficulty in justifying manned missions on a starship when robotic probes are doing such an amazing job. It does not seem to be cost effective to me.

On the other side. I agree space exploration must go on, especially in these times. Very often we have discovered things that helped us in areas we never even dreamed was possible. There is a great amount of unknowns here in our Solar system that are waiting to be revealed, any one of which can lead to a possible solution to the climate change Roen is using as the prime motivator to his arguments.

I am leaning toward his stance based strictly on the fact that we are still uncertain if climate change is as real as the media is making out to be. I’m not saying it does not exist and I am not saying it does. However, somewhere in the middle is truth. But if what we are told is correct, and we do only have little over a couple decades of livability on Earth, do we really want to risk losing this opportunity just because it may not seem to be true?

Peace, guys.

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