Those who align themselves with 100YSS are well aware that talk of spacebound embryos and breaking the space-time barrier is open to ridicule. And at events like the symposium, there are efforts to keep discussion away from what many consider to be overly outlandish topics, like UFOs.
The project has also tried to raise its credibility by including a range of skeptics, particularly on the propulsion ideas. Ken Olum, a physicist at Tufts University in Boston, who took part in a breakthrough propulsion panel at the Darpa symposium, says that schemes like wormholes and warp drive are interesting to discuss but they just are not practical: no one has any clue how to build them.
“Even though I think that there’s not likely to be much future in exotic stuff, like wormholes, I think a little bit of funding should be given to them,” he says. “But they are not the answer to the problem of what we will do in the next 100 years to go to the stars.”
But Levit, the Nasa scientist, says these sorts of breakthrough propulsion ideas, however far-fetched, have to be considered, because they are the only way mankind could conceivably cover the vast distances to other stars.
“Nuclear fusion, if you’re willing to have a 1,000 year mission, is worth talking about,” says Levit, although even this is also an unproven technology, despite decades of effort on Earth.
“But I tend to agree with Jack [Sarfatti] on this: in order to do this, we have to have a breakthrough. We have to have a warp drive.”
Levit, who was the one who invited Sarfatti to the initial 100-Year Starship meeting, says unusual interests shouldn’t make someone off-limits. Mainstream scientists are tied down, argues Levit, and someone like Sarfatti is free to talk about ideas like antigravity propulsion without fear of repercussions on his career. “Although his interests and style are outside of the mainstream, he is a fully pedigreed physicist and he knows as much or more than mainstream physicists,” Levit says. “When he talks about warp drives, he knows what he’s talking about. He knows he’s speculating.”
In December 2011, Darpa selected a team led by Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel to space, as the winner of a $500,000 grant. Jemison, whose partners included the Icarus Foundation and the Foundation for Enterprise Development, won with a proposal called An Inclusive, Audacious Journey Transforms Life Here on Earth and Beyond.
While details of what Jemison and her team intend to do are unclear, the news could spell the death of another interstellar travel foundation. Millis, the head of the Tau Zero Foundation, said that he would have to consider shutting down his operations. “There are not enough revenues around to try to compete,” he says. “I think that would be a disservice to the community.
Sarfatti sees it differently. After spending most of his career as an outsider pursuing faster-than-light travel, he is undaunted by the arrival of a government-backed competitor. Instead, he has shunned the 100YSS process and plans to continue work on his warp drive independently. The Darpa project, he say, is simply too little money to be taken seriously. “I am in touch with people with considerable resources,” he says. “I’ll do it on my own and do what I want to do.”
We may have to wait 100 years to see if he is proven right.