Guest Blog

Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

All Aboard the 100 Year Starship


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; 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).

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

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