The 100 Year Starship

Open the pod bay door, HAL.
Open the pod bay door, HAL.

What would it take to develop the capability to send humans to another star system? That is the ambitious challenge taken up by the 100 Year Starship project. And they have set a deadline of achieving this ambitious goal within, as their name implies, the next 100 years.

Meeting the challenge of sending humans on an interstellar journey that, in all likelihood, will last thousands of years, requires a massive rethink of just about everything. Take something as simple as clothing. It represents a large part of our identities, but it is a major challenge in the closed system of a starship. Can we make clothing that will last the entire journey? If not, can we manufacture clothing on the starship? The answer is probably not, given the lack of new raw materials that the starship will encounter along the journey and the astronomical cost of bringing enough cotton on the starship to supply everyone with new t-shirts for a thousand years. Not to mention that the making of new clothing and the disposal of old clothing is an incredibly toxic process.

So what is the solution? Well given that a starship is climate controlled we could just abandon clothing all together. That would satisfy the technical hurdles but would run into a lot of resistance from most people who not only see clothing as an integral part of their identity that is so entrenched that giving it up just doesn’t enter into their train of thought, but also the cultural aspect of wanting to keep certain areas of our bodies private and hidden from others. So here we have an easy technical solution that flies in the face of what most of us consider ‘appropriate’.

And that is just clothing, one of the easier problems that needs to be solved.

But what do a bunch of naked astronauts have to do with Planet3.0’s core mission of exploring sustainability?

The clothing example above is actually good illustration. Many things we rely on become obviously unsustainable when done in the small closed system of a starship. What is less obvious is that they are still unsustainable when the closed system is scaled up by several orders of magnitude.

By any practical definition, our planet is such a scaled up closed system, but it is so large that we often don’t think of it as a closed system. Scaling down the system can help put the sustainability of the things we do everyday into a clearer focus.

Another critical area of sustainability is, of course, energy. Here too the 100 year starship project has goals that align nicely with what we need in order to achieve sustainability here on earth.

Developing the capability to generate the massive amounts of energy required in order to propel a starship to another star system within the small closed system of the starship would also mean that we have developed the ability to generate more than enough sustainable energy here on earth. Enough energy to satisfy any demands, regardless of how large the planet’s appetite for energy gets.

In fact the energy requirements of the 100 Year Starship are so large that it raises another problem. The amount of energy needed to travel to another star system is so large that if not used carefully could completely destroy life on earth. Think of the destructive power of nuclear energy multiplied a thousand of times. The destructive power of that much energy is hard to comprehend. Like many aspects of interstellar travel the scale is orders of magnitude larger than we are used of thinking about.

So one of the larger challenges involved is how we deal with ourselves.

We don’t have a governance model that is robust enough to survive the journey to another star system, a journey that could last a thousand of years. The effort required for solving this cannot be overstated. A cursory glance at even the most well functioning democracy, to say nothing of the level of governance in Washington DC, or the United Nations, shows how our current governance systems fall completely short of what is required.

But the benefits of building a more robust and effective governance model here on earth are obvious. In fact the lack of such a model is a major reason why solutions to the problems we have (including climate change) remain elusive.

In short by forcing ourselves to solve the problems inherent in developing the capability to send humans to another star system we develop the capability to live sustainably here on earth. Huge challenges are needed because we won’t get where we need to go (be it sustainability or another star system) with incremental steps. Giant leaps (for mankind) are required.

Framing the problem as developing the capability to travel to another star system is a creative way to spark people’s imagination and ambition towards developing our capacity to create sustainable systems here on earth.

There is a potential pitfall involved in such an approach. It is one of timescales. 100 years seems awfully ambitious in order to build the capability to travel to another star system. However, 100 years is far too long if we want to solve many of the problems we face here on earth while avoiding significant suffering. On the other hand, much can potentially be achieved if the project is managed effectively and real attention is paid to the problems facing us here on earth.

That being said there is something incredibly worthwhile in aiming for something better than what we currently have, especially when what we currently have is taking us down a path we know is disastrous, and we haven’t yet found how to change course.

We don’t have the same ambition for the future we used to have. We are still coasting from the large breakthroughs of 30-50 years ago, and the future certainly doesn’t have the level of funding it used to have.

We are the most materially rich people in history, yet our discourse is one of scarcity. If nothing else the 100 Year Starship project will be successful if it improves our level of ambition for the future.

Good luck!


24 thoughts on “The 100 Year Starship

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  1. RE: clothing.

    Cotton is probably out of the question, but some synthetic fibers might be adaptable to a closed cycle. The machinery for recovering, respinning and reweaving synthetic fibers could probably made small and reliable enough for a “colony ship” sized spacecraft. Engineering clothes to last 1000 years might actually be possible, especially for use in spacecraft where the conditions are so tightly controlled.

    There might also be an opportunity to produce some natural fibers as byproducts of food production. Cotton though, is almost certainly out of the question.

  2. While solving the problems of a closed biosphere is important, I don’t see why we need to rush into deep space to work that out. Even a dome in the Arizona desert will do, but if that’s not romantic enough for you then work on a Mars colony. At least the Mars people would have an escape route.

    As a side point I don’t get the clothing argument at all. The ship will have to grow its own food, so why shouldn’t it grow its own fiber? And what is so “incredibly” toxic about weaving cotton?

    The main issue, though, is so many that people want to do gee-whiz forward looking things, like a starship, not solve the actual problems, like of declining ecosystems under accelerating stress. Much as I want a positive vision of the future, this just seems elitist: if anything remotely like this were to happen, it would at best solve the problems of a few dozen people at enormous cost.

    Let’s terraform terra first anyway, shall we?

    1. The main issue, though, is so many that people want to do gee-whiz forward looking things, like a starship, not solve the actual problems

      I don’t think you can solve the gee-whiz problems (like a starship) without first solving “actual problems”. The Starship frame is an attempt to motivate people, in much the same way that Neil deGrasse Tyson tries to motivate people.

      Sure we could solve many of our problems with domes in the desert but likely that wouldn’t motivate people and funding agencies very much.

  3. The 100-Year Starship would need something that we’re just beginning to understand we cannot survive as a civilization much longer without – “steady state” or “full earth” economics. Births must be kept in parity with deaths, consumption must be matched to resource regeneration; pollution must not exceed the ability of the biosphere to cleanse it. Man-made capital must be aligned with and subordinated to natural capital. The Japanese may be the first to embark on a steady state national economy but the growth-paradigm the rest of us stubbornly cling to has already failed us.

  4. I’m not convinced by the relevance of the example. After all, our current planet has the benefit of being fairly close to a source of (relatively) concentrated energy, and of having a mass that is MANY orders of magnitude larger than the mass of living creatures. That allows the system to recycle rather inefficiently (that is, we don’t have to worry about how quickly post-vital humans are returned into the food system).

    But as long as we’re on the subject – why would it take so much energy? Use solar energy to accelerate it out of the solar system, then give it a boost every time it passes an uninhabited star…

    1. I don’t know about the energy. I guess it is so your voyagers have some chance of seeing a planet in their lifetimes.

      Good math exercise for the undergrads and rusty old geezers: how long would it take to get halfway to Alpha Centauri accelerating at 1 G?

      The idea of speeding up as you pass intermediary stars requires you to read some Douglas Adams about how very very very large space is. The short answer is that there aren’t any.

    2. That one was an interesting exercise in my old relativity course – at a constant acceleration of 1 g it would take about 20 years to reach the other side of the galaxy 70,000 light years away, as measured in the traveller’s reference frame. At constant acceleration you very quickly approach lightspeed and then relativistic effects take over.

      The problems are the fuel requirements, which would be astronomical, and the shielding needed to survive interstellar dust and gas in the way moving at a fraction below lightspeed.

      The original momentum-limited variant of the Orion project postulated 3% of lightspeed and 133 years travel time to Alpha Centauri – one way, no slowdown. But I don’t think a 400,000 ton nuclear bomb-powered rocket would strike the average environmentalist as a model for sustainable living! :-)

      It was a lovely idea, though.

  5. Why is cotton out of the question? Cotton grows well using hydroponics and nuclear-powered lamps for sunlight, and is biodegradable with the right cellulase enzymes. People used to weave cotton long before the industrial era. What exactly is the problem?

    How much Uranium would you need to power a fast-breeder for a thousand years? I think a ton of Uranium fully fissioned would produce about 3 MW of heat over 1000 years? So a thousand tons at 30% efficiency would get you 1 GW? How much power do you need to run life-support on a starship?

    The bit about the alternative “governance model” was unclear, but looks like an allusion to certain proposals seen elsewhere to suspend democracy in the name of ‘sustainability’. If that’s not what you’re talking about, it would help to be explicit. It would be terrible if it were to be misunderstood.

    “We are the most materially rich people in history, yet our discourse is one of scarcity.”

    Well said! I think that’s a fantastically significant statement, well-worth meditating on!

    1. Cotton isn’t out of the question. At this stage nothing really is. But it does highlight the immense problems that need to be overcome if we are to travel the stars when even something as simple as clothing requires a fair amount of thought.

      As for the governance model, again nothing is off the table, but it should be clear that our current forms of democracy are probably too volatile to survive an 1000 year journey. A proposal to suspend democracy, might make for good scifi, but wouldn’t want to spend my life on such a starship. I am reminded of the Churchill quote “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried” which is a fancy way of saying that I don’t really know what a better governance model would look like.

  6. In general, ships have commanders, not committees. Genghis Khan thought the world should have a commander (conveniently from his point of view, he thought he should be it, but he was at least partly driven by ethical concerns as he understood them).

    Our world cannot last much longer without some sort of collective decision-making at the global level. I hope we don’t need an emperor, and of course there are huge risks with such a system. Ordinarily the emperor’s son or grandson will be very problematic. In fact Genghis’ kids were hopeless and the Chinese empire was formed by one of his grandkids. It, however, did last a very long time.

    But we need a global de facto cap on carbon emissions and as long as we stick to a nation-state system, a global agreement about which countries can emit what when. So we’re not in all that different a position as the starship. Except for one thing. We’ve already launched.

    1. Unless you think a stately pleasure dome is the minimum requirement for establishment of an empire, you may wish to reconsider your starting date for the Chinese version.

    2. Yes I am thinking of Kublai Khan as the first emperor of China writ large. (This is based on my reading of the amazing book Gengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.) Certainly there were significant dynasties within China before that, but Kublai Khan to my understanding was the Otto von Bismarck of China. Did I misremember?

  7. “DisaStarship”
    — by Horatio Alegeranon

    Build a ship
    From old junk cars
    Send it off
    To distant stars

    With Dubya Bush
    And Jamie Dimon
    Inhofe, Rush
    And other “sly-men”

    Launch ’em out
    Of Humanity’s hair
    So we can start
    The Earth repair

  8. The idea that we can solve our insuperable problems by coasting away is to the tidy part of my mind unfathomable, almost disgusting. I get that there may be concomitant benefits from the research involved. However, the staggering cost of getting even a small payload even to the outer level of our atmosphere should be front and center in these discussions. The further cost of keeping someone alive out there is even greater.

    While it’s nice to imagine we can somehow send a pod of survivors to a less hospitable planet to escape the mess we’ve made, this is IMNHSO escapism pure and simple. It might work in science fiction, but in sober truth we have even less means to send a realistic number of people into space and keep them alive than we do to fix the hole we’ve dug for ourselves.

    This is true to a lesser extent of most geoengineering schemes, but they at least would have some immediate benefit, though mostly at a greater cost in a shortish period (less than a decade? what price is that worth – like a guy with a terminal condition buying days and weeks of life at a cost that would support a bunch of ordinary people for years).

    I know the prospect of death is daunting, but facing it is honest and pretending escape is possible is just fantasy. I’m not against fantasy, but I don’t like hearing it called reality and real money and talent that is much needed elsewhere being poured down that drain.

    It is unfortunate that we mostly rely on money for this fantasy to fund down-to-earth science about our current inescapable (within the foreseeable future) home.

    1. It is part of the accepted ideology that rich people can allocate resources in whatever way tickles their fancy.

      This being immutably the case for the foreseeable future, the fault for such a dubious allocation is not entirely theirs. We need to come up with more constructive avenues for them to contribute and make them look more attractive.

      If you actually look at the dramatis personae for this starship thing, they are heavy on promotional skills and light on science. Dare I say that a successful path to the future will make sustainability look sexy?

    2. Oh dear, I knew I should have restrained myself from using the medical expense metaphor, which detracts from my overall point.

    3. If it’s any comfort, I don’t think most of the people involved are even *considering* space exploration as a way to escape environmental problems on Earth. Although you may be less comforted to think that their ambition is to spread the same practices to other worlds.

      Have you ever read Bert Rutan’s views on climate change?! :-)

  9. The other question, of course, is exactly where do these folks think they’re going? we’ve identified a few planets in the galaxy recently but I hadn’t heard that any of them were close by or that we had any reason to think they were habitable by ordinary humans.

    1. Hipparcos no doubt has given a better figure, but from memory, Alpha Centauri A and B are 274,000 times as far from the Earth as the Sun is. 274,000 AU, Astronomical Units.

      In the coming 100 years, it would be good to do practice runs to Oort cloud objects, maybe just a thousand AU out and back.

      Oort cloud objects are likely to have plenty of C, H, O, and N. For them to become habitable, the visitors would have to bring plenty of uranium and/or thorium, and be extraordinary humans.

    2. Heavy metals from Triton, I think. Why bother with the gravity well?

      “Keep Triton up and out!”

    3. My understanding is that they don’t think they are going anywhere. The goals of the 100 year starship project is to develop the capacity to travel to another star system, not to actually undertake the voyage.

      Obviously, if no suitable destinations are found then no starships will be launched, but everything that was developed to build that capacity would likely be of great value here on earth

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