In January 2011, Darpa and Nasa convened a handful of people, including Sarfatti, to help shape the project. It was decided that the government would provide a modest seed fund of just $500,000 – a drop in the ocean compared to Darpa’s annual budget of about $3 billion – to a foundation that could demonstrate its ability to advance thinking on interstellar travel. Darpa believes the chosen group will then find new sources of revenue, either through commercialising technologies or private donations. And, of course, if there are a few spin-off technologies that Darpa – whose main customer is the US Department of Defense – can exploit, then all the better.
The 100-years part, according to Neyland, was merely an estimate of how long it would take to really move such an ambitious project forward.
“If you even look at our own space programme, if you look at how far we’ve come, it’s been 41 years since we first landed on the moon,” he said. “So we thought a 100-year time horizon, not for the study, but 100 years of doing research and development, gave us some practicality of developing technologies that we couldn’t foresee today.”
The project had a rough start, however. The world first heard of the 100-year Starship from reports about a talk given by Worden at a conference. “The talk spawned erroneous news reports that that the 100-year starship was a Nasa-sponsored one-way human mission to Mars, which didn't make any sense,” says Creon Levit, a Nasa scientist who was the first programme manager for 100YSS.
The idea of a suicide mission was not quite what the two agencies had in mind.
Nasa has since stepped back, allowing Darpa – which has even hired a public relations firm to handle publicity for the project – to take the lead. Despite that initial misstep, a conference open to the public held late last year proved popular. At a panel on breakthrough propulsion, an audience eager to hear about warp drive and faster-than-light travel spilled out of the room and into the hallway.
And no wonder, since many of the ideas sounded like they had come straight out of a Hollywood script for going where no man has gone before. Sarfatti proposed a low-power warp drive (a faster-than light propulsion system) that involves the warping of spacetime around the starship. His idea involves using new meta-materials – which change how light is refracted – to slow the speed of light, while also creating a repulsive anti-gravity effect, creating a warp bubble surrounding the starship. This approach, Sarfatti anticipates, would break the space-time barrier, allowing the spaceship to travel beyond the speed of light in its own bubble. (A related Sarfatti proposal involves using a “quantum entanglement communicator”, which would allow the ship’s crew to speak with people back on Earth).
Eric W Davis, a physicist at the Texas-based Institute for Advanced Studies at Austin, an independent think tank, proposed a traversable wormhole, which would provide a hyperspace shortcut for a spaceship travelling to the stars. The idea would be to harness the energy found in free space - known as negative vacuum energy - to shape the wormhole, allowing the spaceship to travel to Alpha Centauri in just a few days. The difficulty, however, is producing enough negative vacuum energy to create the wormhole.
The symposium also covered the ethical, medical, and even religious aspects of interstellar space travel. Adam Crowl, a board member of Project Icarus, an organisation dedicated to interstellar travel, proposed a possible “escape” mission for a spaceship to ensure mankind’s survival in case of a catastrophe on Earth. His proposal, with echoes of sci-fi like Battlestar Gallactica and Wall-E, involved sending embryos into space to be raised by androids. “It’s a theoretical exercise in looking at the risks to humanity from our own inventions,” he says. “What we might do is to provide a fallback option.”