Uniting the planet for a journey to another star

An artist's impression of the British Interplanetary Society's Daedalus unmanned starship entering another star system.
An artist's impression of the British Interplanetary Society's Daedalus unmanned starship entering another star system.Image courtesy of Adrian Mann
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Traveling to another star may sound like science fiction — something the USS Enterprise can do at the flick of the warp drive switch after Jean Luc Picard's "engage" command — but science fact has an annoying habit of reminding us that space is vast and the speed of light is very limited.

But for a group of interstellar enthusiasts headed by an ex-NASA astronaut, the light-years between the stars isn't insurmountable; it's merely a problem we need to embrace and work toward finding a solution. What's more, they have the backing of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to begin work.

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The technology needed to bridge the gap between the stars may seem impossible at the moment, but consider how the concept of spaceflight must have seemed to Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1903 — perhaps we are at a similar inflection point in human history. In the last 60 years, we've taken the first tentative steps into interplanetary space; how long until we go interstellar?

DARPA has put their money on us taking 100 years to plan and develop a means of pushing mankind into interstellar space to a neighboring star. DARPA's project, called the 100 Year Starship (or 100YSS), was set up to provide seed money to an organization that will develop the technical, cultural, legal and financial frameworks for a manned mission to another star system.

This month, it was confirmed that the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, headed by astronaut Mae Jemison, would head this multi-partner project, including Icarus Interstellar Inc. — a non-profit organization co-founded by Richard Obousy in the aim of developing technologies for interstellar travel. Other partners include the Foundation for Enterprise Development and the SETI Institute.

So, DARPA has awarded $500,000 to Jemison's foundation to set an international group of people from all facets of society on a journey that, hopefully by 2112, will culminate in Homo sapiens having a means to evolve beyond the confines of the solar system and travel to another star.

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But how can we begin to comprehend such a monumental task? Well, you need an audacious vision — a vision Jemison embodied with her successful DARPA 100YSS proposal: "An Inclusive, Audacious Journey Transforms Life Here on Earth and Beyond."

"The very first term is 'inclusive,'" Jemison told Discovery News. "'Inclusive' brings that sociocultural perspective; it brings a trans-disciplinary perspective. It says it makes a difference who's on board, aspect-wise, gender-wise, geography-wise, national origin ... everyone needs to be involved and we need to pay attention to that."

The global perspective is key to the project — after all, to represent mankind and our drive to explore new worlds, different nations, cultures and backgrounds need to be involved, something Jemison — the first African-American woman to travel into space aboard space shuttle Endeavour in 1992 — is acutely aware of.

"When I was growing up in the 60's on the south-side of Chicago, I remember being so excited about space exploration — I wanted to be involved," she said. "But so many of us were left out (of) the vision for what space exploration was.

"There were no women in the astronaut program, there were no African-Americans or Asians; there was just one type of person, and even though as a country we could rally and root for the space program, it left out the public who weren't 'rocket scientists.'"

In the interest of expanding the human experience to interstellar travel, Jemison's organization will also establish The Way — a scientific research institute that will embrace speculative, long-term science and technology initiatives. The Way Institute will eventually have the capacity to spin off for-profit ventures that will ultimately feed money back into the project, and make sure technologies developed during the 100YSS are applied correctly.

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"For me, the main impetus is: there's more for us. We are at an inflection point in human evolution and human history," Jemison added. "Do we stay in one place? Or do we move like the amphibians that moved to the land way back in our evolutionary past? Do we move beyond this cradle?

"I just hope we're not running from war, we're not running from famine, that we're not running from disease, or that we've run out of resources."

With any endeavor that pushes innovation and technological progress, planning an interstellar journey will generate some inevitable spin-offs that may help us solve some of the most pressing issues of our time.

"Some of the technologies we create along the way will help us figure out some of those problems. I hope (our impetus to travel to another star) is more than that, I hope it's that we understand that we can take another step, that we can do something for this incredible capacity we have for hope and meeting challenges."

But Jemison has faced the inevitable astonishment at her interstellar goals. "I've gotten incredulous looks — they're like "what?!" Jemison said. But the inclusive nature of pushing toward an interstellar goal means that even "people who may not necessarily believe that this is our best course right now" need to be listened to.

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Now that DARPA has chosen the 100YSS leader, the project will host a public symposium in Houston, Texas, on Sept. 13-16, "inaugurating what will be an annual event open to scientific papers, engineering challenges, philosophical and socio-cultural considerations, economic incentives, application of space technologies Earth, imaginative exploration of the stumbling blocks and opportunities to the stars, and broad public involvement," says the 100YSS press release.

Although over the years space has become more accessible to a number of nations, genders and ethnicities, Jemison thinks that the people involved in space exploration still have "this feeling of being a small exclusive preserve of folks." Space needs to be more accessible, and although many of the public may not want to go into space themselves, they may still want to be included in the effort. The 100YSS project provides a means to unite the world toward a common goal.

"The public never left space exploration, they were just left out. It's our job to make sure they are included."