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To boldly go where no budget has gone before

When John F Kennedy announced plans to put a man on the moon it inspired a generation to think differently, not just the possibilities of science and technology but about the whole future of the human race and the kind of world they wanted to live in.

When Barack Obama last year announced intentions to start a deep space programme that would eventually send astronauts to Mars, the response was characterised more by nostalgia for the Apollo and Space Shuttle programmes and concerns over job losses and cost than by wide-eyed enthusiasm.

So is a call for the private sector to lead a century-long plan to send humans not just to another planet but whole other star systems really likely to provoke the kind of fervour, and importantly investment, needed for such an ambitious target?

The US Department of Defense seems to think there’s chance and this week has announced a “request for information” (RQI) on how such a programme might work.

The idea behind the 100 Year Starship Study, launched by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is that interstellar space travel would require such huge amounts of investment over a sustained period that even the mighty US government would be unable to afford it.

‘Neither the vagaries of the modern fiscal cycle, nor net-present-value calculations over reasonably foreseeable futures, have lent themselves to the kinds of century-long patronage and persistence needed to definitively transform mankind into a space-faring species,’ said DARPA in its RQI statement.

It wants ideas on how you could create and structure a self-governing organisation with an investment and business model that would allow it to survive the century-long (and probably longer) timeframe needed to meet the challenge of developing interstellar travel.

It’s a mountainous challenge, not least because the closest star to Earth is over four light years away. How could you convince a business or private individual to invest in a hugely risky project that won’t see a return for over 100 years?

One in four young people are expected to reach their century, so perhaps we could have lifetime bonds that parents take out to help fund their children’s retirement. Buy as many $100 shares as you can and hope your kids last that long.

A ridiculous idea perhaps, but maybe if we hit upon the right outlandish scheme we could harness a very real desire of business to take part in bold projects.

For much of the 20th century, it was commonly held that big projects could only be funded by the public sector. Can we imagine the Apollo programme happening during the 1960s without government help? Indeed, even the debacle over the cancelled state loan to Sheffield Forgemasters last year shows how private companies can be unwilling to put up large amounts of cash themselves.

But privatisation, PFI contracts and even the emergence of space travel companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX have also demonstrated there is a desire for business to play an important and in some cases independent role in carrying forward impressive and challenging engineering ventures.

SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk has, like Obama, expressed an ambition to send Man to Mars within the next 20 years. Perhaps he’ll be able to do it before NASA.

Maybe we will even see a return to the general 19th century paradigm of government taking a back seat to let great men and women of industry forge ahead with epoch-defining public works.

OK, maybe not, but the importance of leveraging the private sector has become ever more apparent as states struggle with national debt, commodity and energy costs soar and climate change introduces bigger global challenges than ever faced before.

If there is a way that business can help propel us to the stars we should find it. It might be an unrealistic goal in the end, but DARPA has also recognised that the journey to get there could be just as valuable.

It wants to ‘foster a rebirth of a sense of wonder among students, academia, industry, researchers and the general population to consider “why not”,’ and contends that such a project could have useful, unanticipated consequences to the commercial sector.

Sounds great to me. I’ll take a lifetime bond. Then DARPA just needs to find another $999,999,900 or so.

Readers' comments (6)

  • During the Middle Ages, cathedrals with increasingly elaborate architecture were built over the course of not just 100 years, but 300 or more --- and people didn't let that daunt them.

    Of course, part of what made such long-term projects possible at the time was the overarching power and organization of the Church, but its "business model" included a lot of volunteer labor from the craftsmen and laborers involved --- men who would never see the final product, but who believed in it and supported it with their time, sweat, and skill.

    I don't know if substantial volunteer labor would be a workable part of a modern, high-tech project of this magnitude, but it would be a great way to cut costs. There are surely many of us who would want to contribute to such a project, even if we might never see its fruition.

    ~David D.G.

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  • It was a shame we stopped thinking outer space after the Moon Landings. We seem to be in constant self destruct mode as human beings. Has anyone actually assessed the progress we would have made after WW2 if Churchill had not ordered the destruction of the code breaking computer at Bletchley Park? By now we would have been far advanced in materials and technology and in space benefiting from zero gravity technology and a host of other discoveries. Now we do not have the finances for governments to fund the next step into space so we look to private finance. I for one would not like to be suspended in space on a mission relying on the survivability of the funding company while I am away. If it will take 100 years to get there I would suggest that world wide priorities such as food, territories and religion will surely get in the way. Fanciful ideas but still cloud thinking.

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  • Baby steps.
    Give financial incentive for entrepreneurs. And this includes not taxing them to death for making a profit; and not demonizing them for taking risks and reaping the payout.

    Incentivize the mining of the Moon for Helium3.

    Give land grants on Mars for the first colonists - contingent upon permanent settlement.

    Start mining near Earth orbit asteroids.

    Build up our technology for propulsion speed, endurance, and control.

    Research how to grow, and recirculate food in space.

    Never pick a target so far away as to be laughed off. Pick a closer target such as permanent space colonies in our own galaxy and make it the long-term goal.

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  • A big part of costs in major projects is not materials, it is man/woman-hours. We've seen how interested and dedicated individuals (as groupings of individuals such as the British Interplanetary Society etc.) can contribute significant effort, free of charge, to worthwhile projects (cathedrals: already mentioned; Linux and other computer projects; SETI-at-home; 100$ laptop; outline starship designs etc.). Worldwide knowledge sharing is easier today than it ever was.

    If the vision is right and well defined, a sort of public-private-personal partnership could work, with the added incentive of "shares" and kudos for those contributing.

    IMHO, humankind needs this AS WELL AS other other visions (e.g. addressing world poverty etc), if we are to avoid stewing in our own juices.

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  • Untill the problem of massive gamma radiation is cracked we cannot live out there without massive life support systems. as human beings we live on planets with oxygen based atmospheres. Trying to live elswhere is a hiding to nothing. Try living under the sea for years on end without any contact or supply from the outside world, if you can do that then a slim chance exists that it might work, but the real question is WHY? "Because it's there" is simply not a reason. We are busy proving that we are not fit to live on this planet without screwing it up, perhaps we should learn that lesson and use the money to develop sustainable energy and food sources here before the major protagonists(you know who they are) decide to go off and ruin yet more worlds.

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  • I think robotics is the most feasible and cost effective route... but I would love to explore space in person :-)

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