Could You Head Up DARPA’s 100-Year Starship Program?

Article written: 16 Jun , 2011
Updated: 26 Apr , 2016


Since January of this year, DARPA and NASA have been publicly talking about a 100-year starship program. They’ve held a symposium, put out an official Request for Information (RFI) looking for ideas about how a long-term human mission to boldly go out to the stars could possibly happen, they have an official website and have just put out a request for papers for a public symposium that will be held this fall in Orlando, Florida.

Yes, they are serious about this.

However, contrary to what the title of the project might infer, it’s not so much about actually building a starship that could go on a long duration, long distance journey, but more about solving the all the various technical, medical, sociological and economic problems so that one day – perhaps in a 100 years or so – we actually could build one and head for the stars.

And they are looking for someone to head up the program.

“This is really a hard problem and I wouldn’t suggest for a second that it would be easy”, said David Neyland, director of the Tactical Technology Office for DARPA who spoke with reporters in a teleconference on June 16, 2011. “But the ancillary developments along the way such as of all the technology development, innovations in energy, medicine, agriculture, and socio and environmental issues, has direct payback to the Department of Defense and NASA, as well as the private and commercial sector.”

DARPA is known for its brand of “blue sky science” where the scientific research they do might not have apparent and initial real-world applications.

But with this project, DARPA and NASA are hoping to spur a surge reminiscent of the research, technology, and education — as well as the unintended consequences – that came about because of developments of the early space program.

“It’s the unpredictable and ancillary things that are of benefit for all of us,” Neyland said.

Neyland has been working with NASA Ames Director Pete Worden on the concept and Neyland said they chose the name not because they actually want to send a starship on a 100-year mission to space – although that would be the ultimate goal — but they want to capture the imagination of folks who normally wouldn’t think of doing research and development and tag them with something they would be excited about.

This is akin to how science fiction has spurred generations of scientists and engineers to follow the career paths they did.

Just like all the technology development that DARPA has done in the past which required only small initial investments but ultimately lead to things, such as the internet and GPS technology — as well as NASA’s investment in space travel which has spawned items we use every day here on Earth — they believe a small investment now could lead to a big payoff for everyone in the future.

So they are starting small. DARPA has put up $1 million and NASA has contributed $100,000 for one year of symposiums and study. $500,000 of that has been set aside and will be used as money for a grant given to the “winner” of their Request for Papers.

You can see the RFP at this link, and the deadline for paper abstracts and/or panel descriptions must be submitted online at by 2:00 pm ET on Thursday, July 8, 2011.

The recipient of the grant could be an individual or corporation who has the best proposal for how to execute and nurture the R&D necessary for the 100-Year Starship program. “It will be a single grant of that amount which is startup money — seed money — to get the lights on, to get their footing to go out and start the cycle of investments and research, which hopefully becomes successful and then brings money back in so that more research can be done.”

After the grant is awarded, DARPA and NASA will step away, letting the winner set out and boldly go.
Neyland said he knows these are austere times, but feels this is a strong way to leverage investments for a good, ultimate payoff, even though that payoff may not be for several decades.

What type of person or corporation could possibly win this grant?

“Who would do this?” Neyland replied to the question that was posed by Universe Today. “Some folks want to send money to DARPA right now for this, and some want to sign up to be on the crew for the 100-year starship. But I don’t want to say who would be a respondent to the RFP, as we want to it be very ‘open kimono.’ But we want people to propose to us what would be the right path to take.”

Neyland mentioned successful long-term foundations such as the Rockfeller and Gugenhiem foundations might be an example of what the entity could ultimately turn into, but he doesn’t want to prejudice that there is a specific entity or construct they are looking for. “We want people to propose to us what the right direction should be,” he said. “They’ll have the ability to go in whatever direction they see fit.”

Neyland added this is not intended to be open to US citizens or corporations only – although there is a dilemma that he is not sure DARPA can give a grant to a foreign entity. “But this has to has a much broader view that what can happen in the US academic and industrial base,” he said. “ This has to be across all international boundaries, across all academia and all industries.”

Neyland admitted there is the possibility that no one will step forward far enough to earn the grant.

“We want to get the most bang for the buck for the Department of Defense,” he said.

So, everyone out there who has the dream of traveling to the stars, what are your ideas?

See the 100 Year Starship website for more information. The public symposium will be in Orlando, Florida on Sept. 30 – Oct. 2, 2011.

Here are the list of tracks the conference will include. Individuals may submit speaking abstracts directly related to these topics, or they can propose entirely different ideas.

Time-Distance Solutions [propulsion, time/space manipulation and/or dilation, near speed of light navigation, faster than light navigation, observations and sensing at near speed of light or faster than light]
Education, Social, Economic and Legal Considerations [education as a mission, who goes, who stays, to profit or not, economies in space, communications back to earth, political ramifications, round-trip legacy investments and assets left behind]
Philosophical, and Religious Considerations [why go to the stars, moral and ethical issues, implications of finding habitable worlds, implications of finding life elsewhere, implications of being left behind]
Biology and Space Medicine [physiology in space, psychology in space, human life suspension (e.g., cryogenic), medical facilities and capabilities in space, on-scene (end of journey) spawning from genetic material]
Habitats and Environmental Science [to have gravity or not, space and radiation effects, environmental toxins, energy collection and use, agriculture, self-supporting environments, optimal habitat sizing]
Destinations [criteria for destination selection, what do you take, how many destinations and missions, probes versus journeys of faith]
Communication of the Vision [storytelling as a means of inspiration, linkage between incentives, payback and investment, use of movies, television and books to popularize long term research and long term journeys]

You can follow Universe Today senior editor Nancy Atkinson on Twitter: @Nancy_A. Follow Universe Today for the latest space and astronomy news on Twitter @universetoday and on Facebook.

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20 Responses

  1. Torbjörn Larsson says

    I have a hard time making my mind up about this.

    It is precisely because a dedicated, isolated, no-external-scientific-return-within-builders lifetime mission is such an enormous undertaking that I believe natural expansion, if viable, will most likely take us to the Oort clouds and if so all over the galaxy. (Planets, who need those? =D)

    But of course there is value in the know-how how to manage such project, if viable, and if so the internal return of star drives, shielding et cetera, and last but not least in having a fall back option.

    I guess I could take the usual human choice of supporting both, conflicting as they are on every level. And so my problem to solve is first and foremost how to choose.

    • Anonymous says

      Natural expansion?

      • Torbjörn Larsson says

        Yes, if there are resources for living space.

        It is my understanding there are, comets provides habitats with volatiles and sufficiently radioactive elements for energy.*

        We could do this today, provided we can close biohabitat ecology sufficiently. (Today’s best minihabitats gets you to ~ 70 % closure apparently. You would need nearly 100 % for living millions of years in the same body, whether you jump in between or power the comet as craft.)

        Potentially you would also need economics to get to the cloud in the first place. But asteroids and comets have the-not-so-rare-but-still-dwindling-fast rare earth elements to mine. There may, some future day, be sufficient economics in asteroid/comet to Earth raw material import. So I don’t think that is as of yet a known obstacle.

        Summing up, the economics in this says it should be a natural outcome.

        * Fusion would probably be much more economical. But that isn’t an acquired technology as of yet.

      • HeadAroundU says

        Flinstones in outer space. Yaba daba doo!

  2. Anonymous says

    If ever there were a magnet for bullshit…

    They’re just asking for free money with no responsibilities attached. Starry-eyed goals are nothing new in that realm!

    NASA and the international scientific community are already a 100-year starship in this sense. Giving extra money to these beggars won’t necessarily get the community there faster. It seems that their sole preconception is also the most problematic: that the research would be performed within some closed organization.

    As for spurring on the perfectly-functional existing R&D organizations around the world, competitions with prize money seem to be a great way to accelerate progress. The Ansari X Prize has already produced more results than I’d expect from a million dollars of symposiums or an irresponsible startup. Communication between scientists is not a limiting factor these days, and it’s so easy to subvert grant money that this program is sure to live a short, pathetically corrupted life.

    • Torbjörn Larsson says

      NASA and the international scientific community are already a 100-year starship in this sense.

      Thanks for the stimulating input!

      However I think the analogy fails, since science is receiving short term financing and delivering short term results. That is what sets up the problem in the first place, as the ultimate payoff is distant: “a small investment now could lead to a big payoff for everyone in the future.”

      However they hope this overall project direction devolves into a common area: “to get their footing to go out and start the cycle of investments and research, which hopefully becomes successful and then brings money back in so that more research can be done.”

      And for some reason they don’t think it is the main problem here, as it is implied for some of the topics of the initial symposium: “Communication of the Vision [… linkage between incentives, payback and investment, …]”. However, they *do* open to “propose entirely different ideas”, say if one sees a problem with their assumptions.

      This is partly a publicity stunt, but that is the point of similar prize/grant efforts such as the successful Ansari X-Prize. So I don’t see that as a problem.

      In the end this leaves me still inconclusive if this is a good idea. Contrary to you I now see the connection to the X-Prize, and that is a good thing. So at least that raised the proposal from “a very long shot” to at least “along proven means”.

      But there is still, or even more pointedly now, more of a competition for resources between what I perceive as the natural outcome (spread of biohabitats) and this. The synergy would potentially be in habitats, propulsion, et cetera, even if the targets differ widely.

      Of course, _if_ two programs start and are both viable, any such synergisms may be exploited later. But that is still a big hump of spread resources.

      “What to do, what to do, …”. :-/

      • HeadAroundU says

        There is a MARKETING in it and that’s why he is angry. But it could inspire and accelerate the goal. Who knows, we will see…

  3. Anonymous says

    Getting in before Ivan…

    “Neyland added this is not inteneded to be a US entity” -> “intended”

  4. Anonymous says

    Maybe I will try this out. I really doubt this will be done, but since they are interested in “alternative propulsion” I have done some work which illustrates how quantum information can propagate in ways which are “faster than light,” well sort of. If you get your self into a black hole some strange things can happen where there is an ambiguity between pre-selected and post-selected states. This could be a way to finance some of my work.

    That would be a hell of a way to travel, for you have to fall into a black hole. That is probably not the most practical way to get around.


    • Anonymous says

      LC, I think this is right up your ally. Perhaps you could emphasize your sail design? That seems like a realistic technology under a 100 year timetable framework.

      I’m sure a winning proposal would have to be comprehensive. Lots of issues to tackle here; it could be very personally rewarding.

      If you do consider writing something, why not ask one of the UT authors to post it? We could have a read through and suggest any modifications/oversights?

      If anything, it would be an interesting article to say the least!

      • Anonymous says

        The photon sail is not original with me. Rob Forward is the guy who did the most with this. My book generally discusses some physics calculations with respect to this type of spacecraft. The intention is largely pedagogical.

        I could of course present something on that, so long as I might go there to present something involving research. There is this matter of the Hardy paradox in quantum mechanics and how post-selected states in the future can determine quantum states in the past. Black holes I have found put a twist on this. There is an ambiguity with respect to post and pre selected states if the black hole is also quantum mechanical. The result is that quantum information can appear anywhere, including a speeds faster than light — in a sense. Of course you have to pass through a black hole that is smaller than the nucleus of an atom! However, it might stir up some interest.


      • Anonymous says

        “Of course you have to pass through a black hole that is smaller than the nucleus of an atom!”

        Interesting stuff, but how would this be useful? Some sort of FTL communication? I’m not sure I understand how two locations in space-time are determined. Could it be something worth pursuing under a 100 year development timeframe?

      • Anonymous says

        The two locations are not determined, but only obtain according to quantum probabilities. The development might have absolutely no practical application. The LHC may produce small quantum amplitudes which correspond to black holes.

        A gluon chain is can have a correspondence with a graviton. The spacetime of our universe is a conformal flat spacetime which forms the boundary of an anti de Sitter (AdS) spacetime. . The boundary of an AdS_n, n dimensions, is a conformal field CFT_{n-1}. So the boundary of the AdS_n is a conformally flat spacetime, which can be a de Sitter spacetime. The CFT_{n-1} lives on this boundary space, which has “no gravity,” or should we say the spacetime has curvature which may be conformally mapped to flatness. However, the CFT has modes which run from the UV to the IR, and at the IR this is a massive conformal theory. Mass though breaks conformal symmetry of the spacetime — one gets local curvatures, or the mass can cause the tangent plane on the AdS_n boundary to penetrate the AdS interior where the graviton exists. Yet the holographic content of this theory tells us that the UV domain is equivalent to the IR domain.

        As a result of this at energy in the renormalization group flow domain, or conformal domain, a gluon chain might then have a small quantum probability for being a black hole. If the energy could be ramped up to near the string limit (Hagedorn temperature) that amplitude for a black hole increases to near unity or one. The quantum black hole has a quantum uncertainty with respect to its event horizon. In other words the horizon is “fuzzy.” As a result exterior and interior states of the black hole exist in quantum superpositions. This has the effect of creating an ambituity on the time ordering of states, or quantum bits, so information can appear outside of the black hole along a path that is not causal or what might be called “faster than light.”

        This probably has no application at all. Yet this might be a format for presenting some work. I seriously doubt that human being will be plying the heavens in starships. The best we might do is to send robotic probes to some nearby stars.


  5. Anonymous says

    Crawl Walk Run. First get Vasimr or similar working then get entangled Qbit FTL telemetry working (if not learn to live with a 6 year light lag) . Get a small chondrite asteroid and some propellant and plutonium for power. Mount several movable telescopes to cover all the wavelengths on it then push it out with a chemical rocket tug as an unmanned probe, Probably take 30-50 years to reach Barnard’s star which is sensible, you also get something that makes JWT look small and data on heliopause of two systems plus a deep space probe.

    • Anonymous says

      great brief. But with the faster than light entangled communications, we could do better. Read Orson Scott Card, “Ender’s Game”? Fly our unmanned probe like a video game, in real time (once it gets there).

  6. Anonymous says

    “(DARPA) and NASA Ames Research Center (serving as execution agent), are working together to convene thought leaders dealing with the practical and fantastic issues man needs to address to achieve interstellar flight one hundred years from now.”

    “The 100 Year Starship Study aims to culminate in the creation of a self-sustaining organization that will tackle all the issues and challenges inherent in long duration interstellar space flight.”

    Be careful not to misread the release, the target is not to find a way to travel to a star with a flight duration of less than 100 years, it is to come up with an organisation that can find, within 100 years, a way of traveling to the stars (with flight durations that would probably be much greater).

    Personally I think they have already biased the project. We are unlikely to go anywhere without knowing there was something to look at so, like Mars, we will send small, fast, unmanned probes first. By the time they get there and establish communications (a few centuries probably, solar sails are in principle capable of better than 1% of the speed of light), we will have made advances in areas probably not even known at present.

    Being highly speculative just for illustration, perhaps we will have made some headway in cryonics and merged AFM techniques with small robotic vehicles to create a general assembler.

    Put them together and you can freeze then dismantle, transmit, reconstruct and finally thaw a human being, so you have the bones of an atomic level “teleporter”. Even though the individual stages might take years, no time would pass for the passenger.

    The point is that assuming people will step onto a ship and “fly” through space will almost certainly seem incredibly naive by the time our first interstellar probes arrive.

  7. Madsanity says

    The galaxy is like a rubber band stretched & it’s comin back slowly.

  8. D B says

    we cant go to the moon and the planet is dying and they want to go to the stars??

    lets have a think tank for the mars trip and moon bases, explore/ mine the asteriods etc.

  9. Anonymous says

    The 100 Year Starship Project comes at a time when misguided government officials are making cuts that are killing railgun projects, killing laser projects and generally taking money away from any long term focus. News today that air conditioning is funded better than NASA. Now some libertarian genius is trying to get us all to believe that, somehow, the private sector, though well known for its focus on quarter-by-quarter results, will now suddenly develop the long term view that the government cannot! Worse than crazy.

  10. Anonymous says

    While the libertarian trend in government is canceling weather balloons, railgun projects. laser projects, and the news today is that air conditioning is funded better than NASA, some genius gets the idea that the private sector, well known for its focus on quarter-by-quarter financial results, can suddently adopt the long run view that government cannot. It is just crazy. When they cite all the side benefits of space research and travel, have they forgotten the central role of the public sector? Have they forgotten the role of leadership?

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