100 Year Starship.

Honoria and myself just got back from Houston where we attended the 100 Year Starship Symposium. This event was hosted by Mae Jemison’s Dorothy Jemison Foundation. The foundation has received a DARPA grant to organize people who are interested in enabling the technology that is needed to create the possibility of building a starship – an interstellar vessel, possibly carrying humans – within a timeframe of a hundred years.

Walking into the symposium cold, with no applicable knowledge, and then sitting down to learn about concepts for FTL drives, the math and the associated energy requirements, made an interesting few days. The FTL drive is important because traveling at fractions of lightspeed is just a bit slow. It works by shrinking spacetime in front of the craft and expanding it behind. That takes a lot of fuel. To not carry all that fuel with you, generate it by heating vacuum in space with lasers, to create particles from background noise. That takes big lasers, and so on.

As a whole, interstellar travel is characterized by requiring solutions that appear to be theoretically (string-theoretically) possible, give or take a few miracles, but currently out of reach by a few orders of magnitude when compared to currently available technology and knowledge. But then again, our lives today are full of technologies that did meet this exact description fifty or a hundred years ago.

Besides technology and math, there also are a lot of questions of social nature – how many people would make a good crew, what should they take with them, what will happen if somebody gets mad in the canteen when the craft is three lightyears away, what will the children of the travelers think about earth, or about planets in general, if they have never been close to one for their entire life.

Software ?

Myself, I wonder how the travelers will write software when they need some. And they will need software for everything.

Should the programming spacefarer still be exposed to the memory leaking pointer mess that today’s compilers serve up, with their computer science concepts from the 1960s ? Or will functional programming and its conceptual children finally find an inroad to the software industry, with a starship as a usage environment as a catalyzer ? This would be a great near-term economic engine for a long-term goal, improving software everywhere on earth well before the ship is built.

Will a good user experience still require weeks of mucking about by a designer / artist, followed by more weeks of mucking about by the rare developer who is actually interested in making the “good” parts of the solution happen, by tediously wiring voluminous, dull user interface code and state management into their life-support-system business logic ? Or will software finally fulfill the modularity promise that object oriented programming has failed to deliver on ? To get there, we should envision UX-less program logic, self-describing its inputs, outputs and state needs, to which smart UX components can attach themselves to provide a realtime solution that is optimized for the platform, the user’s proficiency, the user’s preferences, and the exact information that needs to be communicated. There’s another short term engine in this idea, which would free bored programmers from having to fiddle with UX, and allow device manufacturers, in the short term, to compete on the intelligence, beauty, and flexibility of their devices’ user experiences, instead of dumb-skinning the robot or the fruit as it is done today.

Or maybe the second generation of starship kids just use their optical-nerve integrated command line anyways – but I don’t think so (and if they do, more power to them.) At the symposium, the old-school-singularity consciousness-uploading and bloodcell-replacing nanobots did not make a major appearance. The social discourse was just that: grounded social discourse.

A nice moment at the event was sitting at the dinner table with Jill Tarter, the director of SETI for over three decades, while a clip from Contact was shown on the video screen, showing Jodie Foster as a fictional Jill.


The physics and math presented in the panels, well beyond my reach, were impressive, but I have a sense that I know what I don’t know in that area. Truly alien was hearing speakers about public policy.

All the Nasa folks are trekkies – no surprise there. Star Wars was not mentioned. The Parsec is a unit of distance, not speed, after all.

Here is a piece by Clara Moskowitz on Space.com.

  1. A very nice and generative piece. Can you say more about what was so alien about the public policy presentations?

    • knutopia said:

      “Connecting with the right people in DC” is simply something that is far outside my own experience. I’m no theoretical physicist either, but I have an appreciation for scientific thought. I’m rather clueless about maneuvering halls of power.

      As far as actual policy is concerned, as a form of content / substance, I actually could imagine working on authoring policy. That process must have some similarity to discovering requirements, fomulating a solution, and then writing a specification. (While wearing a tie.) But maybe this assumption just illustrates my cluelessness.

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