Space, the final frontier. In fiction, the human race has long been drawn to the idea of spreading out among the stars, colonising new planets and exploring the furthest reaches of space, ensuring the survival of our species. In reality, the idea of interplanetary colonisation has been hampered by little details such as the inadequacy of our technology and the sheer brain-freezing amounts of money required to launch people out of the Earth's atmosphere.
Now NASA has announced that not only is it aiming to open the possibility of colonisation, but that it is looking far beyond the confines of the Solar System in order to do so. The Hundred Year Starship project is a research project aimed at developing technology that will put humanity in the position of being able to build a functioning starship in the next century or so.
At a San Francisco event in early October 2010 (the Long Conversation Conference), in response to questions about the limited scope for colonisation provided by the solar system itself ("Mars could be a BIT interesting," the interview conceded grudgingly), the director of NASA's Ames Research Center, Pete Warden, confirmed that Ames had begun this research programme. $100,000 has been invested by NASA, with $1,000,000 coming from DARP; and Worden is hoping that "certain billionaires" might contribute further.
This Hundred Year Starship would be a one-way ticket for the pioneering astronauts who boarded it, they would be unable to return to Earth. But there is no shortage of astronauts who have previously said that they would be willing to make such a personal sacrifice in order to take us out into space. Overcoming both the possible psychological effects of knowing they will never return to Earth, and the known physical side-effects of space travel such as muscle wastage in zero gravity, will presumably form part of the research and development of the Hundred Year Starship project just as much as investigations into propulsion systems and photon torpedoes (if the eventual starship is not armed with photon torpedoes, everyone will be very disappointed).
The Hundred Year Starship project is clearly in its infancy but it marks a shift in NASA's ambitions, away from exploration and towards colonisation - a goal which the agency has always been very wary about pursuing publicly. The focus on private money in order to achieve this goal is also an interesting new development.
The idea that the NASA mission will take astronauts to Mars and 'leave them there' is misleading. It is likely that Mars will at some point be the first staging post in our attempts to spread beyond planet Earth, but the real goal is to seek out new planets in other solar systems. If it gets off the ground, so to speak, the Hundred Year Starship project might end up changing the way we view our place in the Universe.