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The 100-Year Starship

12 September 2012

The 100-Year Starship

By Gwynne Dyer

Never mind the constraints of the miserable present: the shrinking budgets, the lost opportunities, the collapsing morale. Thinking is free, so let’s think really big. Let’s think about…building a starship in the year 2112.

Well, I’ve already been thinking about that for decades, actually, but that was just wishful thinking. Now there’s a whole organisation for thinking about it, with a proper budget and government support and participation by private enterprise, and this week they’re holding a public conference in Houston, Texas: the first annual symposium of the 100 Year Starship Initiative.

The sessions have ambitious titles: “Time and Distance Solutions”; “The Mission: Human, Robotic or Reconstituted?”; “Destinations and Habitats”; “Becoming an Interstellar Civilisation”. But the organisers also realise that this project will take as long as building a Gothic cathedral: one session is simply called “Research Priorities for the First Ten of 100 Years”. Then they’ll have to set priorities for the next ten years, and the next, and the next….

DARPA wanted to create an organization to foster “persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel possible.” The winning proposal, by the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, declared that “100 Year Starship will unreservedly dedicate itself to identifying and pushing the radical leaps in knowledge and technology needed to achieve interstellar flight.”

The 100YSS, as it’s known, would probably not exist if the professionals interested in space flight had really challenging near-space projects to work on. They don’t: one American space scientist described the current American space programme, and indeed those of its rivals elsewhere, as “trying to finish what we started in the 1960s.” Low-orbit operations are vital, but they are not inspiring.

Some of these frustrated professionals work at NASA and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), so there is official support for thinking big. There’s not much money: DARPA gave the 100YSS only half a million dollars of seed money (out of its $3 billion budget), but then nobody is planning to build expensive hardware now. They just want to think about what kind of hardware (and software) would be needed to go to the stars.

If they want to go on thinking big thoughts for very long, of course, they’ll need more than half a million dollars, but the rest of the money will have to come from private enterprise. For the moment, that means mainly from the well-funded space companies founded by billionaire entrepreneurs who made their money in other new technologies, and now want to do something even more interesting.

So appoint a charismatic former astronaut to lead the organisation – Dr Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space – and make sure that both private business and potential international partners feel comfortable with the approach. It’s a natural area for international cooperation: there are probably never going to be rival national starship programmes. Add a truckload of ambition, a pinch of hard-nosed realism, and stir.

The first public outing for this enterprise is the symposium in Houston, and its popular appeal is obvious. It’s a heady thought that this may be where the future course of human history is set, and at this stage nobody has to deal with dreary things like budgets and project management. The most outrageous concepts can be welcomed, examined, and pursued or rejected. But is there any realistic prospect that human beings could ever build a starship?

Nobody knows. As Douglas Adams’s seminal work, “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, sagely observed: “Space…is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is.”

Building a starship would therefore require not just four or five generations of technological revolutions. It would also require the overturning, or at least the wholesale reinterpretation, of the laws of physics as currently understood. Last time around, it took about five centuries, say from 1450 to 1950, to get through a comparable scale of change in technology and physics. But of course things move much faster now.

At any rate, it’s hard to see what harm the 100YSS could do, even if it never achieves its objective. If the history of space-flight up to now is any guide, at the very least it would produce radically new technologies that have major positive impacts on human welfare. And if it actually succeeded… That would be the biggest deal in human history.

The most recent estimate is that there are about 30,000 planets suitable for our kind of life within a thousand light years of here. Most observers assume that if a planet can support life, then it will almost certainly have life. It would be a great pity to miss out on all that because of a mere lack of ambition.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“DARPA…flight”; and “If…interesting”)



Obama: The Limits of Power

30 October 2008

Obama: The Limits of Power

 By Gwynne Dyer

My favourite rumour about President-elect Barack Obama’s cabinet is that he will create the post of Secretary of the Environment and offer it to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Of course, it’s unlikely that Schwarzenegger would take the offer, because being governor of California is a much more satisfying job, but Obama will need a couple of Republicans in his cabinet and Arnie is serious about the environment. Stranger things have happened.

I know, Obama won’t officially be president-elect until Tuesday night, so I shouldn’t put it like that yet, but it really is over. The media have to keep it looking like a real race right down to the finish line, but you know and I know that Obama is going to win, possibly by a landslide.

With both presidential candidates essentially running against George W. Bush, the one who wasn’t a Republican started with a huge built-in advantage, and then the financial crisis and the recession sealed John McCain’s fate. So now it’s time to consider what Obama will do with his power — and even how much power he will really have, given that his spending options will be severely constrained by that same recession.

It helps that the Democrats will have firm control of both houses of Congress, of course, but Obama will benefit even more from the fact that he is probably going to enjoy one of the longest honeymoons in presidential history. Americans, including most of those who didn’t vote for him, are going to be immensely pleased with themselves for having elected an African-American as president.

It won’t transform race relations at every level and it certainly won’t lift all African-Americans into the middle class, but it will be seen as erasing the deepest stain on American history, the legacy of slavery. Most Americans have been uncomfortable about that for a long time, and they will make Obama a symbol of that cleansing even though he never set himself up as such. This will serve him well when he has to do politically unpopular things.

More importantly, he doesn’t face a long list of unpopular things that he must do at once. Rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the rich is not going to alienate a lot of people, nor is imposing tighter regulation on the financial industry.

Obama is extraordinarily fortunate that the huge financial bubble that built up on Bush’s watch collapsed while the man responsible was still in office, so people will remember for some time that the recession that dominates the first years of his term is not actually his fault. That memory will eventually erode, of course, but if it is an ordinary two-year recession it will be coming to an end by the time the public starts to blame him for it, and the economy could be booming again by the time he runs for re-election.

But that is getting well ahead of ourselves. What big thing is he actually going to do early in his term to make his mark? It needs to be something that doesn’t cost too much, at least in the early stages, so the answer is almost certainly health care reform.

The long-term cost of giving basic medical cover to the sixth of the American population that currently has no cover whatever will not be small, but Obama is unlikely to go for a comprehensive national system of the kind that exists in almost all other developed countries. The power of the insurance companies is too great for that. So it will be some insurance-based system supported by federal subsidies, and by the time the system is up and running federal revenues should be recovering from the recession.

Obama can also expect a honeymoon internationally, but it could be shorter. Opinion polls consistently showed that 80 to 85 percent of people in other developed countries would back Obama if they had votes in the American election, and his support in developing countries is even higher. The standing of the United States in the eyes of foreigners, so badly battered by eight years of George W. Bush, will soar as soon as Obama takes office — but there is reason to doubt that American foreign policy will actually change all that much.

Obama will pull American troops out of Iraq by 2010 as promised, but he is promising to reinforce the US military commitment in Afghanistan, the allegedly “winnable” war, and he is also on the record as supporting American attacks on Pakistani territory without Islamabad’s permission. His forte has never been foreign policy, and there are disturbing signs that he has bought into the whole “war on terror” narrative that has dominated the American domestic debate since the shock of 9/11.

If that is the case, then Obama’s present popularity in other countries will decline quite rapidly, but that is of limited interest to most Americans. They want healing at home more than anything else, and Obama can deliver that.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“It won’t…industry”)