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All Aboard the 100-Year Starship

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In 2012, I asked LeVar Burton (who comandeered the Scientific American website as guest editor on Wednesday) if he would join me on a trip across time and space, to another star. Then I explained, yes, really. I had a team with a modest seed-funded grant from DARPA to build an organization to ensure the radical leaps in knowledge, technology and human systems needed for people to travel beyond our solar system within the next 100 years.

Mae Jemison as Lt. Palmer standing alongside Worf in a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Courtesy of Mae Jemison)

Knowing that I would totally get it (being the first person to appear on Star Trek that had actually traveled in space) LeVar commented, “Mae, you all are building the Federation!” and graciously said yes. We were honored when he agreed to be on the 100 Year Starship (100YSS) Advisory Board. Yet that “Federation” comment, while a bit daunting, was extremely insightful and to the point. Here’s why.

From the earliest moments of human history, human beings have gazed in awe at the infinite sweep of the heavens, which persistently engaged their imagination, intellect and emotion. Today a misconception exists. Many equate the dawn of space exploration with the launch of Sputnik and the cadre of engineers, scientists and technologists who made it happen. Actually, space exploration began with the first miraculous human observations that tracked the shifting lights of the sky. Ever since around the globe, people of every interest, socio-cultural affiliation, gender, age, economic status and educational level have been dreaming about travel to the stars.

(TM) & © 2014 CBS Studios Inc. Star Trek and related marks and logos are trademarks of CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

When most people think of deep space missions, the first things that come to mind are the incredible technologies that must be designed, engineered and manufactured to address the very real physical challenges beyond Earth’s orbit. And these are critical, tough, tough issues.  For example, interstellar distances—the distance between stars—are stultifying. Voyager, one the very coolest things humans have accomplished in space exploration, would take over 70,000 years, averaging the speed of 35,000 miles per hour it has since 1977, to get to our closet neighboring star, Proxima Centuri, 4.2 light years away, if it were heading that direction.  Clearly, that’s too long a trip for us to get too excited about. So that time and distance hurdle demands new energy generation technologies and propulsion systems. Chemical systems will not do—we need to safely generate, store and control enormous quantities of energy from fission, fusion or antimatter. (Quick aside: Imagine what it would mean to us here on Earth if we were to achieve some small step along this path.)

Mae Jemison wearing an extra-vehicular activity (EVA) suit during her time as a NASA astronaut from 1987-1993. (Courtesy of Mae Jemison)

Transportation isn’t the only technological and engineering challenge, however. Sustainable closed food and water systems; radiation shielding; robust materials, textiles and robotics; intelligent systems and equipment that detect errors and self-correct; data storage, analysis and communications; and medicine—all these areas require phenomenal advancements to even start the journey. Such unfathomable leaps were also needed when we thought about travelling to the moon, particularly in the days when H. G. Wells wrote The First Men in the Moon in 1901. Yet less than less than 70 years later, there we were.

Still, I emphatically believe that the biggest hurdles to achieving interstellar flight are the sociocultural, political and economic factors. And the humanities, social sciences, arts, politics, psychology and culture are an indivisible part of 100YSS. Success will most critically pivot upon the project’s ability to ignite the imagination of and include the broadest swath of people in the journey. 100YSS does not have a date to launch a mission to another star. Our task is to accomplish the radical leaps in knowledge and technology necessary to achieve travel beyond our solar system within the next 100 years, while at the same time pioneering and transforming breakthrough applications that enhance the quality of life for all on Earth. The mission will most likely fail if it reflects an exclusionary posture that only some small set of people can fathom, let alone hope to engage with.

In fact, it might be argued that the reason there is no human presence on the moon today is because there has, in a very essential way, been a lack of broad-based public support, understanding, willingness and, perhaps most importantly of all, inclusion. And this also extends to Mars, as we know its address as well. Competing economic interests may play a role, but given the amount of money necessary to achieve such an undertaking, the cost-factor is actually nominal, even incidental*. Rather, the perceived “exclusivity of space” made much of the public feel space exploration would not benefit them or their children, and in fact, would leave them at a disadvantage. So instead, the public settled for movies that included them in the form of characters, adrenalin, adventure and do-gooding quests. People never lost their fascination; they were just left out.

And here’s where the LeVar’s Federation challenge takes center stage. In the Star Trek universe, the Federation is about ensuring that all people and sentient beings benefit and have a role in the forward evolution of that future. The Federation is composed of individuals, societies and worlds that share a common ambition to explore and create a wondrous future.

100YSS believes that pursuing an extraordinary tomorrow will create a better world today. The sociocultural, political, scientific and technical communities must see human travel to the stars as not just aspirational for a few, but necessary for life here on Earth to prosper and reach its full potential.

100YSS invites you to be a part of building an inclusive, audacious journey that transforms life here on Earth and beyond. Come to our 2014 Public Symposium September 18-24 in Houston, Texas; follow us Twitter; like us on Facebook; check out website 100YSS.org; become a member, write papers, do research, draw, paint, sculpt, sew, film and tell stories – the universe is calling! After all, space isn’t just for rocket scientists and billionaires; it’s an integral part of all of us.


* “A rough cost estimate for Mars … about $20 billion to develop all the required hardware … each individual Mars mission costing about $2 billion … While representing a great sum, spent over ten years, it would only represent about 7 percent of the existing combined military and civilian space budgets … this money could drive our economy … the same way as the spending of $70 billion (in today’s terms) … the Apollo program contributed to the high rates of economic growth in America during the 1960′s.” The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin (New York: The Free Press, 1996).

Mae Jemison About the Author: Dr. Mae Jemison, a physician, engineer, educator and entrepreneur, was the first woman of color in the world to go into space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour and was a NASA astronaut for six years. She is now the Principal for the 100 Year Starship Project. Her leadership and vision provides guidance and direction for the foundation and in fulfilling its goal of ensuring all the capabilities for a successful human journey to another star will exist by 2112. An author of lay literature and technical articles, Dr. Jemison is sought for commentary on space exploration, science education, diversity, sustainability and development and appeared on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Follow on Twitter @maejemison.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 11 Comments

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  1. 1. Laurenceofberk 6:20 pm 06/12/2014

    We would have had a base on the moon, and have been ready for Mars, except for one thing.

    We have spent all our surplus money on “defense” – war and war preparations.

    Humanity has no business expanding into the universe until we have learned to make peace with ourselves here on earth.

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  2. 2. Pierre300 9:52 pm 06/12/2014

    “Humanity has no business expanding into the universe until we have learned to make peace with ourselves here on earth.”

    What the… We should be expanding into the universe precisely because we are not at peace with ourselves.

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  3. 3. Wayne Williamson 5:52 pm 06/13/2014

    Actually agree with both the above posters.
    That being said, just doing the adhoc thingy is silly.
    You actually have to have a plan and doing stupid things should not be part of that.
    Look, when we can go any where in the solar system any time we need/want to, we can start thinking of checking out other systems. My guess/suggestion is when we have somewhere around a thousand ships moving about the solar system, it will probably be time to send some real probes to other star systems. I would not suggest the first ones were manned.

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  4. 4. Edgod1 9:41 pm 06/13/2014

    We have to face the possibility that we won’t discover high speed travel such as warp drive or artificial gravity, and that other impediments will still exist that will threaten the health of any star travellers. The only safe star ship might have to be the size of a planet to shield them from these effects. Using linear rotation as artificial gravity has its limitations as the accelerative forces would be significantly different between the head and does and have adverse consequences on blood circulation. To economically protect against cosmic rays and micrometeorites a small spaceship would need something like a 10 metre coating of ice or some other material. And what if suspended animation is impossible? Can you imagine being cooped up for years on that vessel, imagining that black vacuum of death waiting for you on the other side of that bulkhead? Most likely folk would go stir crazy, causing a cascade of self-destructive mental problems. The answer might be to send robotized vessels aloft, and when they detect a habitable world and near their destination, create test-tube humans. Of course, you would have to have robot parents with human-like AI to bring them up, but then you have the problem what to do with their attachments. What if the robot parents can live to 5000 years but the humans can’t? You can’t kill them off prematurely. Such is life.

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  5. 5. Edgod1 9:42 pm 06/13/2014

    Should have been toes instead of does.

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  6. 6. Edgod1 12:46 am 06/14/2014

    Of more importance is how we will interact with any other life, intelligent or otherwise, if we should discover them. Will we learn from our mistakes of the past, or repeat them? If potential colonizers find a planet inhabited by intelligent life, and either because they see a threat or because they feel there is no room for Earthlings, they may post signs the equivalent of ‘Yankee go home’. What then, considering the time and effort it has taken to get there? Will the colonizers force themselves on them by war? Remember, there is no police force to be sent from Earth to make sure they don’t behave selfishly. Fletcher Christian felt emboldened to mutiny because he knew there was little chance any police force would be sent on a two-year journey from the other side of the planet to find and arrest him. Remember how the English took over the continents of North America and Australia by displacing the original inhabitants? If colonizers meet intelligent life, but their degree of civilization is only at the level the Australian aborigines were, will they not be tempted to take over such a world? The history of colonization provides many examples to learn from, so it will be important to staff any spaceship with people of the highest ethics, and avoid self-serving types.

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  7. 7. Luckylife 7:20 am 06/15/2014

    Faster than light?
    The theory of General Relativity and the equation E=mc2 lead to the conclusion that accelerating an object to the speed of light requires more energy the closer one gets to C. So that when its speed is very near ‘C’ the energy required is enormous for even slight gains of speed. The other analogy of this infers that the closer to ‘C’ an object is, the more it weighs.
    However, here is the problem with this theory. Suppose we have a very large Black Hole on the order of 10^15 solar masses and a small object falling into the maw, say a brown dwarf. When the dwarf reaches the Schwartzchild Radius it can be assumed to be travelling at close to ‘C’ and since it could have 0.2 light years (25,400 AU) to fall before reaching the singularity that is plenty of time for its speed to increase. OK so far. According to current theory then, as it reaches light speed its mass will increase but gravitational attraction will not lessen and if its speed differential to ‘C’ is infinitesimal then its mass will become near infinite – or at least equal to the Black Hole attractor. Therefore with an apparent equal mass, we can expect the two objects to be mutually attracted and move toward each other! By the rationale of Einstein, Galactic Core black holes should develop rapid movement toward infalling objects on the order of tens of thousands of Astronomical Units. If this is not observed then the only other conclusion is that infalling objects are exceeding the speed of light, at least within the boundaries of the black hole.

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  8. 8. Dr. Strangelove 10:00 pm 06/15/2014

    Dr. Jemison

    I predict humans will not go to the stars in next 100 years. You need a big spaceship that travels near the speed of light. The spaceship must be the size of Pluto. Most of its mass is fuel. Too costly even if technically feasible in 2114.

    Settlement on the moon and Mars don’t make sense because they practically have no atmosphere. It’s like the top of Mt. Everest. All adventurers want to go there but only a fool wants to live there. Space tourists would be interested. Earth tourists go to Mt. Everest.

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  9. 9. Heteromeles 9:43 pm 06/16/2014

    Here’s the problem: space doesn’t have a lot of stuff we need. Say we find a small asteroid that’s mostly gold (not likely, but possible–it’s much better to let plate tectonics concentrate minerals for you), we bring the gold asteroid back, and the price of gold falls to that of copper, wiping out a few fortunes in the meantime, and we don’t need to find another such asteroid. This is true for any element you can mine. Our traditional reasons for colonizing other places on the planet don’t work out there.

    Leave Earth because our biosphere is doomed? Hardly. This planet has about 1,000,000,000 years left in it, until the Sun expands to swallow it. It’s currently moving through space (relative to the center of the galaxy) at about 490,000 miles per hour, which is a wee bit faster than Voyager is going at 35,000 miles per hour. It’s not clear that we can go faster through space than the Earth already is. Abandoning this, our best-working and most resilient spaceship, the only one we’ve evolved to live on, is akin to jumping off an aircraft carrier wearing a life jacket, because we know that the aircraft carrier is ultimately doomed to perish in battle or be cut up for scrap. It overestimates the survivability of space travel in a human-built ship, it underestimates the survivability of the ship, and it has no good sense on the relative lifetimes of either in the hostile environment through which they both move.

    Besides, we’ve already colonized space, and we’re not only using the one resource it has in abundance (lots of space), we’re even polluting it. I refer, of course, to the huge armada of satellites we have over our planet, guiding our GPS, seeing our weather, and keeping our telecommunications working. Without these space colonists, modern global civilization would be impossible. We are endangering them with space junk, and hopefully we won’t destroy our first colonization attempt through short-sided pollution of our LEOs. Still, colonization of any new place has to pay off for the colonizer, and that’s the problem with human colonies on the Moon, Mars, or anywhere else. What’s in it for the people left on Earth? Not much, just a lot of costs and some rhetoric. Satellites, conversely, are useful. They are our space colonists, and I, for one, am glad we have them. Too bad no one else is.

    Now, if you want to do something useful, how about turning the seven billion people on this planet into astronauts on this, our spaceship? After all, what rational astronaut cuts up parts of her spaceship, sells them to other astronauts to accumulate money (which is quantized future debt, not a real thing), and calls this a wise business practice? Perhaps we need to turn Earth into the 100-year starship?

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  10. 10. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:31 pm 06/17/2014

    I see the stagnation of space travel as example of more fundamental inability of human societies to run efficently. Leaders want to spend money on their political friends (like defense industry) and citizens are unable or unwilling to enforce their will.

    Humanity will either learn to run societies efficiently and *manage to find* resources and will for space travel, or succumb to such earthly dangers as corruption, pollution, wars and totalitarism.

    About practicality of interstellar travel – I ranted once that, with the current physics, interstellar travel should be done by semi-intelligent, replicating robots. They can be sent across space *as small mass*. They can build everything in the target system from local raw minerals, including more of themselves, factories, scientific apparature and colonies designed for arrival of humans. Speed of development of artificial intelligence (think self-driving car) makes it more realistic than getting enormous energy to send everything from Earth.

    Human interstellar travel will come through the intermediate stage – large, autonomous and comfortable space stations in the near space, with multiplicated systems and autonomous economy. Finally one of these space cities will decide to propel itself between the stars.

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  11. 11. Dr_Zinj 11:52 am 06/18/2014

    All too often people tell you that you can’t do something when they really mean they think you shouldn’t do it. I suspect many who say we’ll never overcome the lightspeed ceiling, or human regeneration and longevity belong to that group.

    There are pros and cons to the development of space. Space is too big. Space is too hazardous. It costs too much. The resources in space are too far apart and not concentrated enough to exploit profitably. Those who say there are far more cons are those who probably know the least about space. The more we know, the better we’ll be able to get there, and use it to our profit.

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