Published October 29, 2010
A NASA official may have made a 35-million-mile slip of the tongue.
The director of NASA's Ames Research Center in California casually let slip mention of the 100-Year Starship recently, a new program funded by the super-secret government agency, DARPA. In a talk at San Francisco's Long Conversation conference, Simon “Pete” Worden said DARPA has $1M to spend, plus another $100,000 from NASA itself, for the program, which will initially develop a new kind of propulsion engine that will take us to Mars or beyond.
There's only one problem: The astronauts won't come back.
The 100-year ship would leave Earth with the intention of colonizing a planet, but it would likely be a one-way trip because of the time it takes to travel 35 million miles. That’s a daunting prospect, partly because of the ethical dilemma, and partly because it may be the only recourse.
"What psychological challenges should we anticipate in those who volunteer in good faith and with great courage, yet find themselves confronting misgivings or loneliness or feelings of rage or beset with mental illness?" asked Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team.
There's one other bizarre aspect to the plan: Humans would have to be “adapted” to the alien world, Worden said, instead of figuring out a way to make the planet more hospitable to them.
“The human space program is now really aimed at settling other worlds,” Worden said during his talk. “Twenty years ago you whispered that in dark bars and got fired.” (Worden actually was fired, he confessed during the talk, under the Bush administration.)
Since that revelation, hundreds of news reports about the program have theorized that the substantial budget indicates the Hundred Year Starship is a dramatic shift for the stalled space program, not just a research project; others suggest it is a serious attempt to find a way to Mars. And NASA? The space agency seems to be dodging all questions.
FoxNews.com first contacted NASA’s Ames Research Center last week and scheduled a call with Worden for Monday. The call was postponed to Wednesday. Late Wednesday the space agency postponed again, before finally canceling the interview, citing Worden’s busy schedule.
After a week and a half, DARPA issued a press release announcing the program -- but conveying no more information than in Worden's initial speech.
But what is the Hundred Year Starship? Some experts argue that any program that suggests putting humans into space for their entire life, or for multiple generations, is doomed from the start, since many people react negatively to the idea of leaving the planet and never returning. Others are more supportive, saying it is the only way to settle a space colony.
Speculation about colonization takes many forms, and some of the freshest ideas sound a bit peculiar. Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies, who wrote in the Journal of Cosmology recently, suggest sending four astronauts on a one-way mission who “establish their presence” and do not come back. The suggestion is to send supplies to them occasionally, but the risks are similar to what Columbus undertook to explore the new world. (That analogy is a bit suspect, however: Columbus was most famous for actually returning.)
Les Johnson, a well-respected science author, spoke to FoxNews.com and agreed with the plan: a one-way, hundred-year mission may be the only way to get to Mars or other planets.
The main issue has to do with a basic physics conundrum. In order to travel the great distance to Mars (about 35 million miles), a starship would need a tremendous amount of fuel. Yet fuel adds more weight -- in fact, every pound you add to a ship requires 4 pounds of fuel. The more fuel you add, the more you need simply to move the ship's bulk, making it impossible to go one-way to Mars, much less roundtrip.
Johnson said the only solution is a longer mission using some form of propulsion that has not even been invented yet, or is still untested. One is a massive solar sail, which captures energy from the sun. Another is a fusion reactor that generates power without any on-board fuel.
Dr. Chris DePree, who heads the Bradley Observatory, also helped fill in some gaps on a 100-year mission to another planet. “It seems like the only realistic way forward, if we really want to colonize the solar system, is to have one-way trips,” DePree told FoxNews.com. “It might be that technology improves, and the grandchildren of those first Martian colonists return to Earth.”
He also explained what “adapting humans” means: The suggestion sounds absurd, but science may actually have more luck developing new breathing apparatuses or using chemical injections to make humans able to live on a foreign world than developing technology for "terraforming" a planet.
As to the question of a one-way mission, DePree says the idea is not as hush-hush as you might expect. NASA doesn't intend for a suicide mission, he said, but rather is debating the idea that an astronaut may live out his or her natural life on another planet and never return to Earth. Johnson said there are astronauts who have already volunteered for one-way missions before, and it's not a ludicrous proposition.
Even with these explanations, there is still wild speculation about the program. Worden mentioned the idea of working with third-parties to help fund future missions. He said Larry Page, the Google founder, asked how much it would cost to fund the mission (the answer: about $10 billion). This begs the question: is NASA ready to leverage its work by enlisting private enterprises?
Some scientists have wondered how the 100-Year Starship would deal with the effects of long-term space travel. Johnson said that even after spending a few months in space, the wear and tear starts to show -- astronauts who have visited the Space Station often cannot walk for a few days. Johnson said muscle mass starts to decline and bone density decreases after prolonged periods in outer space.
Short of an official news release, one that spells out exactly how the starship program will proceed, many assume that the program is just in an early stage. Johnson said the funding level of just $1.1M sounds like it is simply for research.
Worden may have slipped by revealing the program, but -- as evidenced by NASA’s lack of cooperation -- it may be too early for any new revelations.