To boldly go where no budget has gone before

Senior reporter

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.