Robert Heinlein And The 100 Year Starship StudyS

Anyone who looks back on Robert Heinlein's ‘juvenile' novels, twelve books written for young adults between 1947 and 1958, as inspiration for his current work gets my attention. I loved every one of those novels, particularly Citizen of the Galaxy (1957) and Starman Jones (1953), but David Neyland says it was Time for the Stars (1956) that got him thinking about the 100 Year Starship Study. If you've been keeping up with Centauri Dreams, you know that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which handles cutting-edge research and development for the US military, is putting on a starship symposium this fall in Orlando, FL.

This follows up on the earlier DARPA Request for Information and will lead to the award of $500,000 or so in seed money to an organization that can best pursue the study's goals. Neyland, who is director of DARPA's Tactical Technology Office, has been explaining what the study is all about to newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, which ran a story on it on August 6. Heinlein's books came up naturally in the interview, for it turns out that Neyland was quite a science fiction reader in his youth and found Time for the Stars a natural fit with his mission to inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers with the dream of starflight. The key to the linkage is Heinlein's use of a foundation that would facilitate long-term thinking and planning.

Thus the Long Range Foundation, which in the novel creates technologies that take generations to deliver, but eventually benefit not a single government or corporation but the entire species. In the book, twins Tom and Pat Bartlett turn out to have telepathic talents that allow them to communicate with each other instantaneously, and other twins display the same gift. It's a useful trait because it appears that using such twins is the only way to stay in touch with a far-ranging starship. Thus a representative of the Long Range Foundation comes to visit the twins and their father, where we learn about the background of the organization, as told by Tom Bartlett:

Its coat of arms reads: "Bread Cast Upon the Waters," and its charter is headed: "Dedicated to the Welfare of Our Descendants." The charter goes on with a lot of lawyers' fog but the way the directors have interpreted it has been to spend money only on things that no government and no other corporation would touch. It wasn't enough for a proposed project to be interesting to science or socially desirable; it also had to be so horribly expensive that no one else would touch it and the prospective results had to lie so far in the future that it could not be justified to taxpayers or shareholders. To make the LRF directors light up with enthusiasm you had to suggest something that cost a billion or more and probably wouldn't show results for ten generations, if ever … something like how to control the weather (they're working on that) or where does your lap go when you stand up.

It turns out, of course, that a foundation like this pays off in a big way, having developed a number of exploratory starships called ‘torchships' that can reach a substantial percentage of the speed of light, more than enough for time dilation to kick in. And as the young Bartlett reflects upon a school paper he has written on it, he realizes that the Long Range Foundation (LRF) has been having the desired effect for some time:

Mr. McKeefe had told us to estimate the influence, if any, of LRF on the technology "yeast-form" growth curve; either I should have flunked the course or LRF had kept the curve from leveling off early in the 21st century – I mean to say, the "cultural inheritance," the accumulation of knowledge and wealth that keeps us from being savages, had increased greatly as a result of the tax-free status of such non-profit research corporations. I didn't dream up that opinion; there are figures to prove it. What would have happened if the tribal elders had forced Ugh to hunt with the rest of the tribe instead of staying home and whittling out the first wheel while the idea was bright in his mind?

Neyland credits Heinlein, then, with the notion that inspired the 100 Year Starship Study, but he also points to Jules Verne, whose From the Earth to the Moon appeared in 1865. The point of such books isn't that they were accurate in terms of the actual technologies involved - Verne shot his crew off to the Moon from a giant cannon in ways that would have mashed them to a pulp - but that they inspired people to think about the larger topic of traveling on such a momentous journey. And Neyland noticed that it was just over 100 years later that Apollo 11 set down at the Sea of Tranquility. Like Verne, then, we may not have all the answers about starflight (to say the least) but a starship study may inspire people to ask the right questions and think big.

At a press conference in June, Neyland spoke to journalists about the study (see this Centauri Dreams story on the event), noting that in the Request for Information period that produced over 150 responses, some people had misconstrued the study's intent. DARPA has no plans to build a starship, in other words, but to develop understanding about how research into such long range matters can be conducted, and to encourage the inevitable spinoffs as such studies are pursued. Hence the planned award to a single group that can become the locus of interstellar studies over a long time period (and if none is deemed suitable, DARPA won't disburse the money). Here's how he describes the study's true goals, as told to the Times:

A lot of folks think that we're asking for somebody to come in with a plan on how to build a starship. That's actually the wrong answer. What we're looking for is an intuitive understanding of the process of inspiring research and development that comes up with tangible products.

"Products" doesn't mean physical products, but might be a new computer algorithm, a new kind of physics, a new set of mathematics, a new philosophical or religious construct, a new way of growing grain hydroponically. The organization needs to have the gestalt of how to inspire that kind of research.

Will we, in the same hundred year stretch that separated Verne from Apollo, develop the technologies we need for an actual trip between the stars? It's an energizing thought, but from our perspective today we have no way of knowing. Nonetheless, the idea of creating an organization that can shepherd various approaches to a starship - and this is a multi-disciplinary undertaking that ranges from physics to biology to sociology and more - is one that surely captures the imagination. What spinoffs it might generate along the way are open to conjecture. Unlike so much in today's world, the project is inherently long-term, looks out well beyond current lifetimes, and asks what will produce results not just for us but for future generations as well.

The agenda for the 100 Year Starship Study symposium is now available online [but see Jim Benford's comment below]. And if Heinlein's Time for the Stars is what led David Neyland to this, maybe it's time for me to re-read it. "We know the questions to ask, but we don't know all the questions to ask," Neyland told the Times. "We can hypothesize where we want to get to, but it's a pretty broad target that we're aiming for." A broad target indeed, and it's high time we began gathering the resources that, if interstellar flight one day proves not just possible but practical, will eventually lead us to a mission.