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Live Long and Prosper: The 100 Year Starship Project

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them”—Albert Einstein

The Defense Advanced Research Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently announced an extraordinary new project, the 100 Year Starship Study, www.100yss.org. Depending upon your perspective, this could either be the craziest or the coolest project ever undertaken by a US federal agency.
Ever since 1958, DARPA has endeavored to keep the US on the cutting edge of emergent defense technologies. Indeed, there is an undeniable advantage in possessing more sophisticated defense technologies than one’s potential foes. For most folks, peace is preferable to being vanquished by superior weaponry. Of course, DARPA is not only a producer of weapons. For example, if you’re reading this article, then you can thank DARPA. The Internet is a civilianized version of ARPANET, DARPA’s original computer networking system. Thus, DARPA has a history of developing new technologies that have stimulated both defense-related and civilian social progress. Would we live in an information society if not for the Internet? However, the 100 Year Starship Study arguably expands DARPA’s technological vision into an entirely new realm.
From September 30 – October, 2, 2011, DARPA will conduct a 100 Year Starship Symposium in Orlando, Florida. The goal of the symposium will be to engage in an open discussion about the challenges involved in achieving interstellar space travel over the next 100 years.
Yes, you read that correctly: DARPA wants to launch an interstellar starship by 2111.
Certainly, some might view this as overreach on the part of DARPA. After all, interstellar space travel is the stuff of science fiction, right?
For those who are smirking, it is worth pointing out that in 1961 lunar space travel was also pure science fiction. As of 1961, the US lacked the scientific knowledge to land astronauts on the moon. Yet, in spite of that deficiency, President John F. Kennedy committed the US to the goal of landing astronauts on the moon by the end of the 1960s. (There’s nothing like a deadline to motivate progress!) In realizing Kennedy’s dream, the US not only managed to win the space race, but the US also laid the foundation for the information society.
As America’s terrestrial problems escalate, critics have charged that space flight is little more than a futile and expensive hobby. After all, what hope is there that NASA programs will ever resolve practical problems such as winning the war on terror, reversing global warming, reducing the spread of AIDS, or eliminating global hunger? Indeed, space flight is so atmospherically insulated from the real world that NASA programs often appear to be little more than distractions; diverting scarce resources from a plethora of intractable social issues and blasting them into the boundless void of space. In short, what possible benefit can earthlings hope to derive from the billions of dollars required to keep space programs afloat?
History has shown that, so long as we remain committed to our dreams, humans have got all the brains, wherewithal and fortitude to achieve the impossible. We can build a brighter future. All we need are visionary leaders who are prepared to lead the charge toward the Next Great Frontier.
So, why should DARPA organize a 100 Year Starship Symposium? Because, quite simply, the stars light the way to a brighter future. Space travel paved the way to Kennedy’s New Frontier in the 1960s. If the United States remains committed to accomplishing ever greater feats in the future, then we should look to the stars to light our way. Thus, 100 Year Starship is not a distraction. The 100 Year Starship project could well be the vehicle that transports us to the next Great Frontier.

About Timothy McGettigan

Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University – Pueblo. The Socjournal is an outstanding resource for all things sociological. Too often, the media examines social issues from a singularly economic perspective. If you really want to understand how the social world works, it's better to use a broader, clearer lens. In this column, I will discuss a variety of forces (technological, scientific, political, cultural, and, yeah okay, economic) that are currently reshaping the globe. Whether or not the world is changing for the better is an open question — and, thus, it's a question that I look forward to debating at length in this column.
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