When Jack Sarfatti was 13 years old, he began receiving phone calls from a strange metallic voice that told him he would someday become part of an elite group of scientists exploring uncharted territory. Those calls, which he believes may have come from a computer on a spacecraft, proved a seminal influence on his life and led him to pursue a career that combined mainstream physics with an enduring interest in UFOs and the far-out reaches of science.
For those who might dismiss Sarfatti as a crank, he is quick to point out that he is not interested in debating the reality of little green men, but rather whether the existence of UFOs might prove that the technology required for interstellar travel is possible. “It’s the physics that interests me,” says Sarfatti, who received his PhD in the subject from the University of California.
That experience, and interest, also helped make Sarfatti one of the key figures invited last year to help formulate an unusual government programme: the 100-Year Starship (100YSS).
While the US government’s manned space programmes appear stuck in Earth’s orbit, this audacious project aims to kickstart efforts towards interstellar space travel – journeys over vast distances to stars outside of our solar system. It is driven by ideas that range from ensuring the survival of the human species and searching for intelligent alien life to the desire to overhaul space propulsion and just pure academic endeavor. Science fiction favourites from wormholes and warp drives to light speed and lasers are all on the table, meaning parts of the project can end up sounding like the wish list for an episode of Star Trek.
But the 100YSS is not a fringe activity started by a bunch of dreamers. It has the backing of two high-profile US agencies – the space agency Nasa and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the US military agency that helped create the internet and satellite-based navigation. Darpa has a track record for these kinds of seemingly impossible technologies: in recent years it has sponsored attempts to develop a hypersonic aircraft and driverless cars.
But even those might pale next to the goal of sending a manned spaceship to the stars. And the agency’s willingness to embrace unconventional ideas and people – like Sarfatti – means the project divides opinion. For its backers it is a visionary blueprint for interstellar travel. For the naysayers, it is a crackpot idea with no hope of even getting off the ground.
For those who might consider a starship something of a pipedream, David Neyland, the head of the Darpa office in charge of the 100YSS, points to the agency’s ability to spur innovation in unexpected areas, an ability that has proven critical to its success. “The iPhone in your pocket is powered by cellular radio technology that came out of communications research Darpa did back in the 70s and 80s,” says Neyland. “So it is that unintended consequence of technology research that we are hoping to inspire.”
Of course, when it comes to spaceships, we have been here before. Serious study of interstellar travel has long attracted a coterie of dedicated followers spanning mainstream science and the outer fringes. Wernher von Braun, the famous rocket scientist, justified his work on military weapons as a way to further engineering that would lead mankind to space. “I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit London,” became a satirical jab at von Braun, whose dreams of travel to Mars led him to build the V2 rockets for Nazi Germany that rained down on England during World War II.