by Marc Millis
On January 11 & 12, I participated in a gathering of roughly 30 individuals to learn about and discuss the DARPA/Ames 100-year Starship Study. In addition to reporting on those events, I’ve included my personal commentary at the end of this report.
Recall that in October 2010, the Director of NASA/Ames, Pete Worden, inadvertently revealed that DARPA was funding Ames to the tune of $1M for such a study. This triggered something of a media flurry and shortly thereafter DARPA issued this press release. This January meeting was the first step in their process to involve the insights of others. I requested and was granted an invitation.
The gathering was held in a 1903 fort that had been converted a couple of years ago into a modern lodge and meeting area (Fort Baker, now Cavallo Point). Its location near the base of the Golden Gate Bridge provided a calm, out-of-the-way location with few distractions. The meeting began at noon on the first day, carried on (with breaks) through cocktails and dinner, and then resumed on the second day, running through lunch. The organizers invited Peter Diamandis (ISU founder, X Prize Founder, etc) to facilitate the meeting and Peter did an excellent job of stepping through the original agenda and giving everyone a chance to be heard.
PARTICIPANTS, PROCESS, AND PURPOSE
Of the roughly 30 attendees (not including supporting staff, such as the stenographers), about half were from NASA/Ames and DARPA. Aside from one NASA HQ representative (the new resurrected NIAC lead, Jay Falker), no other NASA center was represented. In alphabetical order:
DARPA Attendees Paul Eremenko Roger Hall David Neyland – Progenitor of this 100-year study
NASA Attendees Matt Daniels (Ames & Stanford PhD student) Jay Falker (NASA-HQ & new NIAC lead) Rachel Hoover (Ames, Public Affairs) Peter Klupar (Ames) Larry Lemke (Ames) Creon Levit (Ames – assigned to lead this 100-yr study) Lisa Lockyer (Ames) Alex MacDonald (Ames) Dawn McIntosh (Ames – on temporary assignment to DARPA) Alen Weston (Ames) Pete Worden (Ames Director)
Other Attendees Elizabeth Bear (Science Fiction writer) Jim Benford (Microwave Sciences) Peter Diamandis (Xprize Foundation, etc) Lou Friedman (Planetary Society [retired]) Joe Haldeman (Science Fiction writer) Barbara Marx Hubbard (Foundation for Conscious Evolution) Mae Jemison (Former Astronaut, now active in various educational endeavors) Harry Kloor (Chief science advisor for the X Prize organization) Marc Millis (Tau Zero Foundation) Alexander Rose (Long Now Foundation) Jack Sarfatti (StarDrive.org) Dan Shekow (Global Universal Entertainment) Jill Tarter (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – SETI Inst.) Jacques Vallée (Euro-America Ventures & Co-developer of ARPANET [led to Internet]) Craig Venter (J. Craig Venter Institute, first to sequence the human genome) Claudia Welss (Assistant to Barbara Marx Hubbard)
The planned agenda consisted of cycling through 3 break-out discussions (10 to a team), to discuss respectively the “why, what, and how” of an organization, where each cycle consisted of one team reviewing the notes of the prior team. The overall goal of the organization is to sustain research that will lead to the creation of a starship in roughly 100-years, and to inspire students along the way. By asking “why-what-how,” it was hoped to flesh out some substance to define that organization.
This brings me to an important point. The meeting and the DARPA funding is about creating an organization that could last for 100-years, rather than about the technological and sociological advancements necessary to eventually create starships. In fact, the funding is not allowed to be spent on any research or educational activities related to interstellar flight, but instead can only be used to define that organization. As much as I really like the name, “100-yr starship,” this study should instead be called the “100-yr organization study.”
Although there was some debate challenging the assumption that one lasting organization is the key element to make interstellar flight happen, the attendees followed that premise and the “why-what-how” cycle of questions. Next are some preliminary results of those discussions, but it must be stressed that these do not constitute conclusions passed on to DARPA/Ames, but rather reflect the provisional thoughts that came out in the course of this first set of discussions. This is not the final word.
Also, I am not endorsing, nor dismissing, these results, but rather I am simply reporting them to the limits of my abilities and my own biases. I post my own comments at the end of this report.
WHY go to the Stars? After much discussion, the key motivations for interstellar flight were distilled down to the five items listed in the first column of the table and then voting was used to compare their relative importance from three different perspectives: (1) what the attendees felt for themselves, (2) the anticipated priorities of fund sources, and (3) the anticipated priorities of the general public. Again, these reflect the discussions rather than being “THE” final answers.
MotivationVotes from AttendeesAnticipated Public InterestFunding Source Interest
Human Survival 6 7 9
Contacting New Life 8 13 2
Human Evolution 13 4 7
Discovery 3 1 10
Spiritual Beliefs 0 4 1
In contrast, here is what I jotted in my notes from my own impulsive thoughts:
• For humanity to survive and thrive • To conquer frontiers instead of each other • Because its just so damn cool • To find out what’s really out there
Two other provocative subjects that came up in the course of these discussions were, should this be an international or USA organization, and should humans be considered part of eventual interstellar voyages? Regarding international or USA, the group eventually reached a consensus (not unanimous) for an international effort. And after lively discussion about robotics, transhumanism, and who would likely go on the first missions, it became obvious that human survival, via expansion into space, was a key motivation.
Although the agenda questions included “Who should go?” it became clear that this question was premature. It is way too early to judge such things, and nothing done today about this would still be valid by the time human interstellar flight actually becomes possible. In the course of reaching this conclusion, there were several well-made, yet contrary opinions.
WHAT does the organization need to do to fulfill those motivations? Rather than sticking to the task of defining what an organization needs to do to last long enough to enable interstellar flight, the discussion turned instead to contemplating some of the milestones that would have to occur toward enabling interstellar flight. This is what they came up with. Please note: I do not agree with much of this list. I’m simply reporting it:
– 5 yrs: • Prove other habitable worlds exist • Create a credible plan • Create a world view of hope • $500 million (receipts) blockbuster movie
– 10 yrs: • Land humans on Mars • Communicate faster than light-speed • Generation of life from computer code without a biological cell • Ability to sink carbon on Earth faster than we’re creating it (leads to terraforming Mars and other planets)
– 20 yrs: • Image of other Earth-like planet • Telepresent probe on the surface of Europa • ECLSS (Closed-loop life support)
– 25 yrs: • Reflect energy off an exoplanet
– 30 yrs: • Non-propellant satellite to Oort Cloud
With the exception of echoing the need for closed-loop life support, I personally refrained from most of this discussion so as to not impede their own flow of thoughts. We (at Tau Zero) are already working to define such next-steps and I wanted to use this as an opportunity to hear an independent set of views.
HOW can an organization be created and how can it achieve such milestones? This part of the discussion never really jelled for a number of reasons. First, little time was left after distilling the “Why” and “What” sections. Next, the agenda was adjusted on the second day to give 1 minute each for existing interstellar organizations to describe themselves to the group. And lastly, this discussion met with very divergent points of view – too many to distill down to a set of key points in the remaining time. Despite that understandable lack of resolution, here are some of the interesting debates:
Origins of Organizations The ingoing assumption by DARPA/Ames is that a new organization is needed for interstellar flight, and that need is enough to warrant a $1-million dollar study for its creation. That assumption was challenged by more than just myself. In addition to my own lessons, others also asserted that organizations come into existence after pioneers start making progress, rather than the other way around. Tsiolkovsky and Oberth, for example, did their work before there were rocket societies. Inspired by such pioneers, such rocket societies were later created to accelerate progress. [That pattern is exactly the strategy of Tau Zero: find the pioneers and help accelerate their progress through the collaboration and support.] Eventually the rocket societies and clubs led to government-supported work when their promising innovations looked like they could meet national goals (such as Apollo or the bombing of London with V2 rockets).
The main DARPA/Ames counterpoint was that if the right organization can be created and funded sufficiently, the rest would follow.
Type of Organization While the consensus was that this should not be a government organization, most of the points and counterpoints were just anecdotal. The antigovernment stance seemed rooted in the frustrations felt by many. The US government in particular was criticized as being too short-term in its thinking and more self-serving than meeting the needs of governance. Nonprofit groups seemed to be the crowd favorite for a time, but the power of for-profit corporations was raised clearly as well. The point counterpoints involved the altruistic stance of nonprofits versus the power of commercialism – even if self-serving. When it came to the features of longevity and the ability to accomplish huge tasks, the role of government once again emerged. In contrast to the ingoing premise of a single, long-lived organization, the cycling of this discussion did more to accentuate how great accomplishments need a mix of organizations rather than one organization to do it all.
The point of longevity and the ability to raise funds also evoked discussion of religion. Several times throughout the other “why” and “what” discussion, religion also came up. I regret that I do not have the talent to capture accurately all those points and counterpoints. Those comments flew too fast and varied to be captured dispassionately. What is certain is the religious discussions got quite righteous and divisive. No overall consensus was reached regarding whether religious organizations should be a part of such endeavors, or even act as a role model for such endeavors.
Fundraising & Resources Assuming a non-government entity, the prevailing notion was to secure wealthy supporters and establish lasting endowments… and to capitalize heavily on the fruits of the labor, even marketing the branding of such cool-sounding names as the “100-year starship.” Ideas for block-buster movies were provisionally mentioned.
Credibility was also raised as a necessary point in fundraising, but here I got confused. To me, credibility means that the organization has demonstrated that it produces reliable and relevant progress that others can rely upon to guide future decisions. In the context of this group, however, “credibility” was seen in terms of getting “big-name” supporters to first back the idea and then use their name recognition to bring in other supporters. The idea of putting an ad in the New York Times with the top 100 supporters of the 100-year starship organization was enthusiastically discussed.
While the prominent notions of “resources” were in terms of funding, a few participants brought up the fact that people are a resource, including the individuals who are making progress today and the students who will become tomorrow’s pioneers.
Lessons from Other Organizations In addition to my own overt frustration that other organizations were not considered in the formation of this study, a few others echoed this issue. The omission of the British Interplanetary Society (which is just two decades short of a century in longevity) was brought up. To accommodate these concerns, the agenda of the second day was changed. Rather than using the remaining time to distill the “how” discussions to a short list , each of the represented organizations was given one-minute to address the whole group. I regret that my note-taking did not keep up with all those who spoke, but at least I jotted notes on the following (alphabetical by speaker):
Jim Benford: Spoke about Project Icarus (and as part of the Tau Zero Foundation)
Lou Friedman: Although retired from The Planetary Society, Lou spoke of the TPS and his own attempts to launch a solar sail mission
Barbara Marx Hubbard: Spoke of her Foundation for Conscious Evolution, which deals, in part, with the spiritual evolution of humanity
Mae Jemison: Discussed her numerous educational organizations and the importance of involving parents
Marc Millis: Obviously I spoke of the recent accomplishments of the Tau Zero Foundation, and our strategy to find and support the collaboration of pioneers and to keep the public informed via our Centauri Dreams news forum.
Alexander Rose: Introduced the Long Now Foundation, mentioned that it gets funding largely through a few wealthy folks, and spoke about their millennia clock project.
Jack Sarfatti: Briefly mentioned wanting to start the equivalent of “Star Fleet Academy” in the Presidio in the Bay Area, and his StarDrive.org.
Dan Shekow: As a part of his Global Universal Entertainment company, spoke of the possibility of producing block-buster, society-changing movies to drive public interest.
Jill Tarter : Described the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and its long history of listening for intelligent signals from space, and the support from Paul Allen for its latest antenna array.
Final Discussions While wrapping up, each person at the meeting was given a chance to make closing remarks, many of which echoed ongoing discussions. Here is a condensed set of those parting comments: • When another habitable world is found, the interest in interstellar flight will bloom • Define the “Big Questions” whose solutions are needed • Be sure to involve other existing organizations in future discussions • Be sure to involve a mixture of disciplines. Social sciences and other nations/cultures were not adequately represented at this meeting • Capitalize on the “coolness” factor
NEXT STEPS FOR DARPA/Ames The DARPA/Ames folks said they needed to digest these discussions before embarking on a next step, but one thing mentioned several times was to have a “bidders conference” in preparation for a solicitation about studies to define the organization. No funding will be allowed for research or educational activities toward interstellar flight. No timeline was mentioned for when the next step would be announced.
MILLIS’S REFLECTIONS ON THIS MEETING When I heard about this study back in October, including the way it was disclosed, I was not sure if this “100-year starship study” was an opportunity or the emergence of a new competitor to an already limited market. I hoped that this meeting would clarify that, but I remain uncertain.
When faced with confusing situations, I prepare by devising a number of divergent hypotheses. Then, as the evidence unfolds, I see which hypotheses seem most consistent with the evidence. From my over 30 years in NASA, I have witnessed the extremes of well-intentioned, honorable initiatives all the way to the other extreme of self-serving earmarks with good-old-boy networking. Accordingly, my ingoing hypotheses spanned those possibilities. Frankly, what I saw in the meeting reminded me of both those extremes, and I am still not sure how this study will transpire.
The emphasis on creating a new organization was loud and clear. Since the funding is constrained to support only the definition of an organization (no research, no education), and since other organizations already exist that are devoted to meeting the topic challenges (Tau Zero, British Interplanetary Society, The Planetary Society, and others with their niches, such as SETI) there is already a disconnect between the premise of this study and what is already happening in the world.
I must also be frank in my own self-serving biases. I started Tau Zero to chip away at the unknowns toward making interstellar flight an eventual reality, and with the help of dozens of others, we investigated the issues and options to arrive at our strategy of finding and supporting the pioneers, and using journalists and artists to tell their story along the way. Hence, I have a great deal of possessiveness regarding how interstellar flight should be organizationally pursued. In my mind and with most (not all) of my network, we are doing exactly what fits current realities. Adding another organization in the mix would be more disruptive than fruitful. Instead I would love to apply that $1M to the 30+ task proposals we have in our queue, and to finally fund the admin support we need to deal with the dozens of offers of volunteer help and permanently fix our damn, broken website (volunteers are wonderful, but can only do so much).
Regardless of how this DARPA/Ames study plays out, my cohorts and I will continue to pursue interstellar flight as we have – which includes forging collaborations with other complimentary organizations. That collaboration might now have to be accelerated to respond to any RFPs (Requests for Proposals) issued by Ames. At the meeting, Lou Friedman suggested forming some sort of “Interstellar Alliance” to respond, and I recently learned that such notions are shared by others who were not invited to the January meeting.
When DARPA/Ames does announce their next step, I hope that all of us can respond in a constructive way, to help shape this initiative into something for the greater good. Time will tell.
In the meantime, we at Tau Zero will continue our efforts. As stated in our November status report, we are beginning active fundraising this year and plan to shift from a donations-only model to a membership format. Also, the results of our November organization meeting – with more details about our priorities and how we operate – will be revealed here on Centauri Dreams when ready.