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DARPA wants a working manned starship for $500k

Mere seed money for mighty humanity-saving organisation

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Bad-boy Pentagon boffinry bureau DARPA has now released the official solicitation for its "100 Year Starship" project, intended to get human beings making interstellar voyages within a century.

We've covered the 100 Year Starship push on these pages before, and the outline idea remains the same. A very small amount of US government seed money (to be specific, $500,000) will be provided by DARPA and handed out by NASA's Ames campus in Silicon Valley. This tiny financial seed is intended to sprout and grow into a stupendous organisation able to harness and deploy the titanic resources necessary to deliver working interstellar transport.

According to the DARPA solicitation just released (13-page/168KB PDF):

For the past half century, the great domain for human exploration has been the cosmos. In a break with the past, however, space exploration has been principally a government-driven enterprise. While not without its spectacular successes, this has not proved — and nor would history suggest otherwise — an especially promising model for long-term investment into the fundamental challenges associated with a sustained foray into space. Neither the vagaries of the modern fiscal cycle, nor net-present-value calculations over reasonably foreseeable futures, have lent themselves to the kinds of century-long patronage and persistence needed to definitively transform mankind into a space-faring species.

DARPA – which is allowed and indeed encouraged to wander the wilder shores of speculative tech, but is in the end supposed to be helping the US military achieve its goals – says that it expects spin-off technologies from the ongoing starship programme to benefit America and "DARPA's principal customer – the American warfighter".

Given the scale of the challenge, however, it is likely that if the proposed starship-spawning entity actually does come into existence it would possess more clout than the entire US government. Assuming for the sake of argument that the investment necessary to reach the Moon scaled up with distance, a series of basic missions to Alpha Centauri along the lines of the Apollo programme might cost 2 x 1018 dollars: that's 40,000 years' worth of the present-day gross domestic product of the entire human race.

That doesn't necessarily mean anything, but it does indicate that the Starship project may need to somehow divert or seize control of a big chunk of humanity's available resources: and thus that the project organisation itself might well be a rival to the USA's status as sole superpower rather than a benevolent research nonprofit or similar.

It's unlikely that anyone at the Pentagon is panicking, however, as – sadly for starship fanciers like us here on the Reg space desk – DARPA projects traditionally enjoy little hope of success (or at any rate, success in the form envisaged at the outset).

There's to be a symposium next month on the Starship project in Florida for those who are interested and can afford the airfare. ®

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