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Space United States Science

DARPA To Sponsor R&D For Interstellar Travel 364

Apocryphos writes "The government agency that helped invent the Internet now wants to do the same for travel to the stars. In what is perhaps the ultimate startup opportunity, DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, plans to award some lucky, ambitious and star-struck organization roughly $500,000 in seed money to begin studying what it would take — organizationally, technically, sociologically and ethically — to send humans to another star, a challenge of such magnitude that the study alone could take a hundred years."
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DARPA To Sponsor R&D For Interstellar Travel

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    • Where are the private investors? The billionaires with more money than they know what to do with? How come none of them are sponsoring anything related to space? Is it just too high risk? How much would $20 billion buy? Or even $10 billion, or $5 Billion?
      • Space Exploration Technology SpaceX []
      • by GameMaster ( 148118 ) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @01:03PM (#37131648)

        The private investors are investing in things like non-orbital launch systems (Virgin Galactic/Scaled Composites); orbital launch systems (SpaceX); and orbital space stations/hotels (Bigelow Aerospace). All of these private ventures would never have happened if it weren't for almost half a century of government funding of NASA and the Air Force before that.

        There are whole classes of radical advancements that, simply, can't happen without significant initial investment without a guarantee of success. Examples of such things include space travel and the nuclear bomb. Historically, some of these kinds of discoveries have been made because an individual monarch was willing to take a gamble (ex. Queen Isabella funding Columbus) but modern business structures are designed to work against such things because they are often wastes of money (ex. the search for El Dorado and the fountain of youth).

        When it comes to traveling to other stars, there are obvious advantages to be had to science as well as humanity as a whole. On the other hand, even if it works in the end, there are no obvious profits to be made on it with our current understanding of science. Any resources we find in a distant solar system would be so hard to transport back to Earth that it'd be cheaper to just manufacture it (atom by atom) in a particle accelerator (which we could do with present technology). In such cases, governmental spending is the ONLY way for it to get done.

        • Great response. At least there are a few moguls out there who are trying to make a business out of space. Tourism is a noble business, if not as romantic as groundbreaking scientific exploration. I can't wait for the space hotels. Once big business figures out how to get the infrastructure in place, other advances should follow in quick succession. There will be a tipping point.
        • by bberens ( 965711 ) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @04:15PM (#37134216)
          Excellent post. I would like to add that the $850 Billion bank bailout (TARP) is greater than the entire combined 50 year operating expense of NASA.
          • I'm not anxious to defend the bankers involved in creating the mess but I thought that much of the TARP fund was eventually repaid. Is that not the case?

      • by cdrguru ( 88047 ) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @01:06PM (#37131674) Homepage

        There are two basic problems with what we would call private investment today.

        First, there is the question of returns. OK, so we are absolutely assured of there being something that is needed out in space - we just have to find it, figure out exactly how to exploit it, and get it back here. None of these are trivial problems but neither are the rewards. Let's talk about exactly how much a big chunk of asteroid that is 50% gold and 50% platinium would bring on the open market. Or, a big chunk of "rare earth metals".

        But these returns are not really certain within a given time period. Nobody can say they are going to be able to bring back 100 billion dollars in gold in two years. However, it is a dead certainity that you would be able to have that 100 billion in gold in a vault in 100 years.

        That brings us to the other problem. Today, the world pretty much runs on an annual basis if not quarterly. The government talks about saving 400 billion dollars over 10 years - with the assumption that nothing will change for 10 years. Companies are comparing last year's revenue to this year;s and that is about it. The best investment you can get is one where the investor is demanding a nearly certain return in five years at at least 10 to 1.

        Nobody on the planet is making investments for ten years and we are talking about requiring investments on the order of 50 or 100 years. The thinking has been that only a government can think that far ahead and make plans that far out. Well, that may have been true in 1492 to some degree but even then they were looking for gold on the table within a few years.

        Today it is doubtful that any democratic government could get away with making an investment that wouldn't pay off for 100 years. The people just wouldn't stand for it. Hugo Chavez might be able to, but even he doesn't think he will be in power in 100 years. No, I don't see the human race making any long term comittments or long term plans. Not at all.

      • You need to ask? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by jd ( 1658 ) <> on Thursday August 18, 2011 @01:14PM (#37131770) Homepage Journal

        Think about it. Launches are expensive. Spaceflight is expensive. Nobody has found a pure gold asteroid, and even if they did it would take more money to get any of the gold back to Earth than the gold would be worth. Communications satellites only exist because the phone companies can charge users a fortune in bills over decades.

        Private investors don't give a shit about technology, and certainly certainly not for technology that has no possibility of a financial return.

        Remember, billionaires got that way because they're damn stingy and only give in order to get more. Wannabe billionaires are even more that way. Where they donate, it is purely for tax reasons. (They can offset all the taxes from income and capital gains and still make a fortune.) It's not for charity and it's certainly not for the benefit of industrialists who could become rich if the technology pays off. This isn't even putting the billionaires down at all. This is simply the logic of economics and it is the logic of economics that create the uber-wealthy in the first place.

        The ONLY people who have both the money AND the incentive to do this kind of work is government. That is why the US and USSR have space programs and Argentinia (which had no shortage of private individuals with know-how for sale after the war) does not. If private investors had any motivation to actually do something in space (as opposed to paying an agency to lob yet another radio/tv/bittorrent relay into orbit), it would have already happened. The closest we've seen yet are Virgin Galactic (which doesn't even reach orbit) and some guys launching small rockets from old oil rig platforms (who, incidentally, you don't hear much about these days).

        As for half a million - it might sound a lot but it would pay for five mid-grade private sector researchers for a year. Not equipment, computers, space, or anything else, just the salaries of those five people. Public sector workers would be cheaper - you could get easily two or three times as many - but this is funding for a private effort so you're limited to five. This research is going to require pushing what we know about human hibernation to the absolute limits. It is going to require some amazing work on radiation shielding. In order for the people on board to develop normally, it is going to require some fantastic developments in materials science (you will need a vehicle 3/4 of a mile in diameter to be able to develop artificial gravity without inducing motion sickness - and then you will need to figure out how to put that vehicle in orbit).

        And, yes, those are mid-grade researchers. Top-end researchers in the private sector would limit you to two or three people, which wouldn't even get you enough to have one specialist per major problem to be solved.

        This is another reason the private sector is a Bad Choice for this kind of work. Public sector scientists are much much cheaper and, since they have access to shared regional or national computation resources, don't require as much money to get a project like this off the ground. The private sector is simply not cost-effective for this kind of work.

  • 1. Invent internet

    2. Invest in travelling to other stars

    3. Expand internet to said stars

    4. ???

    5. Profit!

    • by smelch ( 1988698 )
      I think 3 and 4 are flipped. Interstellar latency is not really a connection. It's the pony express.
      • Would the pony freeze or explode when exposed to space?

        • You use space ponies. Duh.

        • Most likely freeze, but very slowly. Exploding and freezing instantly have both been, as far as I know, de-bunked as what would happen if a person was ejected into space. You wouldn't explode because your body would be able to contain the fluids it couldn't out gas and would out gas any it could. As for freezing, assuming you weren't so close to something hot (like a star) that you'd be roasted, there is no air to conduct your body heat into and away from your body.

    • 4. ???

      Sorry, here's one case where step 4 is not question marks. All you need is a good to trade at the destination and this handy future value formula. []

      • and this handy future value formula.

        Hats off to You for this reference, Sir! Amazing that this is not a science fiction book. Should you, however, fancy extrapolations about a universe with trading speed limited by the speed of light and subjective time, may I counter-recommend Ken McLeod's "Engines of Light" [] trilogy.

      • by Hylandr ( 813770 )

        What Darpa wants is another resource rich land to invade, colonize and populate. But what's likely to happen is they land on a planet, call it Plymouth Rock, smoke the rock and marry into the local tribes and vanish without a trace.

        Then we will send more people to overthrown the indigenous people in the name of science, the crown, or my left shoe, kill most of them, marry into the rest and declare their independence from the Homeworld.

        Next will ensue a series of wars as this new people struggle with an iden

    • Have you read any of Timothy Ferris' books? In several (The Mind's Sky is the one I remember specifically, but he said it in others) he proposes that an inter/intragalactic network of computers is probably going to be set up by someone (or possibly already has been set up, and we just haven't been contacted by it yet) which would be a data repository for information on other civilizations. That way you don't have to spend eleventy jillion years traveling somewhere to learn about it.

      In other words, pretty mu

      • by 0123456 ( 636235 )

        That way you don't have to spend eleventy jillion years traveling somewhere to learn about it.

        But what if they're lying?

    • by jd ( 1658 )

      3 is basically already done. See Delay Tolerant Networking [], which is already used for orbital packet switched networks.

  • Maybe we'll get some good sci-fi stories out of the submissions.

    Esp since the first [insert quantity here] submissions will be previous sci-fi story lines.


    • A lot of what they're looking for has already been extensively covered under the context of sci-fi.
      • No kidding. If I personally had to pick, I'd say a generation ship carved out of an asteroid a la Greg Bear's Eon. Though how you get something that large moving at an appreciable speed would be an interesting challange... I don't think even a thermonuclear powered Orion drive could manage to move a mass that large at anything approaching acceptable speeds (and for a generation ship, a thousand years transit time could be deemed 'acceptable')

        • If you're hollowing out a large asteroid, you're going to have enough material to construct a huge solar sail. A bigger problem is making it airtight. Over the lifetime of a generation ship, even losing a couple of molecules per hour adds up. Once you get a little way from the sun, you're a completely closed system. Recycling has to be almost completely lossless to work.
  • cool (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Froeschle ( 943753 ) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @12:21PM (#37131096)
    It's nice to see that there is still at least some ambition left in our society.
    • As evidenced by half of the posts up to now whining about "waste of government money". *cough*
    • But what are the military applications? Because let's be honest, if DARPA is doing it, then isn't that what this is really about?
      • What were the military applications of being able to build ships, stock and command them appropriately and send them to the New World?
  • by Daetrin ( 576516 ) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @12:24PM (#37131150)

    a challenge of such magnitude that the study alone could take a hundred years.

    Uh, no. The research and infrastructure buildup necessary to actually carry out such a mission could easily take over a hundred years. But if the _study_ on what would be necessary to do it takes a hundred years, or even ten, then you're doin it rong.

    Also, if the study takes over 100 years, the grant works out to $5000 a year. Although perhaps the kind of organization that operates on $5000 a year would take awhile to get things done...

  • by snarkh ( 118018 ) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @12:24PM (#37131158)

    Is a bit more than support for one graduate student for five years. Almost nothing, in other words.

    • Really? Don't graduate students get paid like $35k a year or something? What happens to the rest?
      • by snarkh ( 118018 )

        There is a 50-60% overhead charged by the university. Overall, it is somewhere around 60k/year to support a student. Add travel, equipment, etc, and 500k is not that much more.

      • I only made 12k a year as a supported student, and my health care was NOT included. My tuition came to about 5000 a semester so I guess you could say I made 22k.
    • Is a bit more than support for one graduate student for five years. Almost nothing, in other words.

      But it should be enough to study the field, review the literature (including all the relevant SF - nerd heaven) and actually work out what the critical questions are (including some energy budget calculations which might put the kaboosh on the whole thing). Which is a pretty good first step.

  • At last we will be able to get rid of all of those useless hairdressers, telephone sanitisers and middle management types.
  • I mean, if it's going to take 100 years, then that $500k seems like a good investment if we're going to be hiring a whole team of "researchers" full time. But I suspect that 500k isn't really going to be stretched that thin ;-)

  • Yeah, I saw this twilight zone episode. It didn't go too well for the guy's psyche.
  • by Tanuki64 ( 989726 ) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @12:42PM (#37131414)

    I rarely say this. I am always willing to spend money for basic research, where an immediate benefit is not obvious. But interstellar travel? Now? Ridiculous. Baby steps, please. Such a project for a permanent station on the dark side of the moon would already be very ambitious, but at least not totally scifi. Next step a permanent space station on Mars. If this can be accomplished and is more or less routine, it might start to make sense to think about interstellar travel. But certainly not earlier.

    • by snarkh ( 118018 )

      Actually, a permanent space station on Mars will not make interstellar travel any more feasible. We do not have any even semi-realistic propulsion system to get to the nearest stars in less than a few thousand years. Until such system exists, interstellar travel will remain sci fi.

      On the other hand, developing and testing a system of interstellar propulsion will probably cost billions and trillions, while a lot of publicity can be obtained with a lousy $500k.

      • Actually, a permanent space station on Mars will not make interstellar travel any more feasible. We do not have any even semi-realistic propulsion system to get to the nearest stars in less than a few thousand years. Until such system exists, interstellar travel will remain sci fi.

        I am well aware of that. At least what you said about propulsion systems. There is a good chance that ftl is generally impossible regardless of level of technology. Even travel close to light speed would be absolutely deadly for h

    • by Ogive17 ( 691899 )
      If we could develop a system that could sent information at FTL, think how much better our exploration vehicles could operate.
  • Once human consciousness can be stored in a machine, we can send relatively slow, machine-manned interstellar ships to explore the galaxy.
    • by delt0r ( 999393 )
      Don't you mean if? Sure it may be possible. But then again while we don't really understand consciousness yet, its not a given.
  • The 100 year starship project is supposed to study what it will take to sustain private sector investment into a long range program of building a starship. []

    It is not itself a 100 year project to build a starship, or a 100 year project to figure out how to sustain investment...

    Also, if you're interested in interstellar research, check out Centauri Dreams: []

    • by 0123456 ( 636235 )

      The 100 year starship project is supposed to study what it will take to sustain private sector investment into a long range program of building a starship.

      Well, that's dumb, because it's never going to happen. No private company is going to spend a hundred years building a starship when they can just wait a hundred years for the technology to become viable and then spend five years building it.

      It's like starting a project to build a space shuttle in 1880.

  • if anyone wanted to spend any time with earthlings at all, well, they would have built an interstellar highway is all i'm sayin'....
  • I wouldn't say I have mixed feelings, since some things don't mix well.

    on one hand, I think investigation into interstellar travel is cool, and would be nice to see someone working on, even if just to see what comes out of the research. Long term, very cool projects.

    On the other hand... I thought that foreign wars were stretching it for a "Defense Department". Interstellar travel? What exactly are they defending against?

  • The high cost to the human race's colonisation of space is caused by the complexity and danger of reaching and leaving escape velocity within the earth's atmosphere.

    The Space Shuttle turned out to be an expensive and dangerous white elephant, the reason the Shuttle was so expensive is, because of its complexity with millions of different manufactured parts, and the need to cover it with the equivalent of bathroom tiles.

    There is another route, we can reach the edge of space no problem Burt Rutan proved this

  • If they can do it, why can't we? Maybe the government knows something that we don't. (Queue spooky music)
  • I've already sent them my SWITS (Single Wide Interstellar Travel Standard) for adoption. NASA refused it but I think these guys are a lot smarter. I've even included weight restrictions for duct tape.

"I prefer the blunted cudgels of the followers of the Serpent God." -- Sean Doran the Younger