Posts Tagged ‘DARPA’


Published by Gregory Benford on October 5th, 2011

The 100 Year Starship Symposium was much like a science fiction convention, with solid content and a zest seldom seen. Held Sept. 30-Oct 2 in Orlando, it struck a strong note among the hundreds of attendees. I found it to be enormous fun.

DARPA’s intention in sponsoring this was to spur research and select an organization that will sustain and develop interstellar ideas over the next century. More important, it strove to create a culture centered on human expansion into the solar system, and onward to the stars. A science fictional staple, yes—so it needed sf writers.

Brother Jim and I had invited Steven Baxter, Elizabeth Bear, Geoffrey Landis, Robert Sawyer, Allen Steele, George Zebrowski, Joe Haldeman, Gerald Nordley, Charlie Stross and Vernor Vinge.  We writers gave two panels moderated by Gay Haldeman before the ~1000 person crowd. Jim ran the biggest part of the tech program, propulsion. It was fun to see tech types recapitulate sf ideas – worldships, spacewarps, long lived societies, wormholes, intricacies of biology and aliens. They’re putting numbers on ideas we embodied in stories. One talk titled “Did Jesus die for Klingons too?” called our assumptions onto the galactic stage, quite wittily.

DARPA will give out one grant to an entity with the ‘Communication of the Vision’ goal of furthering ideas that lead to interplanetary travel and a society that will support going to the stars within 100 years. Paul Gilster of Centauri Dreams   said to me this was like an endorsement from on high, and the symposium may be remembered as the Woodstock of interstellar. John Cramer, who ran the warp drive session, said the same.

I tried to deal with the many talks running on six parallel programs, scurrying among the rooms—an impossible task. For example, Jim and I think the most likely first unmanned “ship” will be a beam driven sail that makes a sundiver fall to get a boost from maybe 1/100th of our orbital radius, then gets pushed by beamed laser or microwave beams to very high speeds. The physics of that we now understand; Jim and I worked on the basics in the early 2000s—stability, steering, high acceleration. We even lifted a carbon fiber sail against gravity at JPL. With the basic physics done, it’s merely engineering… but what fascinating prospects! The sail papers were all promising.

What about larger payloads? We’ve hit the engineering wall, going as far as we can with chemical propulsion systems. If we’re going to make it to Mars in any sort of reasonable timeframe or with healthy transit durations, nuclear is the obvious next step.

Indeed, if NASA doesn’t show the world it has a goal—which should be Mars, certainly–and will develop the means to go there, it will be deeply cut in the budget battles soon to come. The Webb space telescope, now projected to cost $9 billion (ten times the initial supposed cost), is the only good project they have on hand. If we put it into the L2 point at Earth’s shadow as planned, we’d better be able to service it, to get long term performance from such a huge expense. That’s hard and expensive to do with chemical rockets.

Nuclear thermal rockets are the sole economical way we have to reach such places, four times further away than the moon. The outlines of an emerging interplanetary transport system are clear. At the Symposium  Geoff Landis reported on the NASA Glenn nuclear thermal rocket program, the third generation of development (after the NERVA program of the 1960s-70s and Timberwind, a still classified program of the 1980s-90s). Stan Borowski of NASA Glenn projects a manned Mars expedition by 2033! That goal could inspire a new generation.

So NASA has a choice, I think—swing for the bleachers, or die. We may know within a year or two which the bureaucrats – who have over thirty years with the Station and Shuttle turned an exploratory agency into something like a postal route—will choose. I’d like to be optimistic.

Several NASA execs remarked to me that the big opportunity now, nuclear thermal rockets, has a lot of opposition from those in the agency who fear public outcry. We’re in the third generation of nuclear thermal rocket development, which already has lift/pound ratings four times that of a Saturn V. But fears of failure dominate Agency thinking. Indeed, the NASA figures I talked to automatically assumed that nuclear thermal rockets were off the table because of “public outcry.” So I said, “Ever done a study to back that up?” Well, no.

I believe the public isn’t so concerned. The 1990s protest against the Cassini mission, which carried a nuclear “battery” source of small power, was the most recent such dustup. But it was funded by a publicity-seeking self promoter, Michio Kaku, who made preposterous claims about the dangers. There was no general public opposition at all. The future has many enemies.

As Joe Haldeman put it, the symposium was “A good and strange time. All those seemingly normal people doing what we do.“ Yes. And we all had a grand time doing it.