It's not unusual for scientists to work for years untangling one of the more tangled problems nature leaves under rocks in the hope no one will find the problem, let alone a solution.
In commercial technology development, companies are praised for funding "research" that goes on for more than six months, even when it's entirely focused on building a single product.
DARPA has both those records beat for long-term optimism.
The Eureka of the real world announced this week it has given $500,000 in seed money to a non-profit organization that will dedicate itself for the next 100 years to building a working, practical starship on which humans can travel outside our solar system for the first time.
The project is called 100YSS (for 100-year star ship).
The project was proposed by physician and former astronaut Mae Jemison as part of the mission of Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, a non-profit organization Jemison formed to honor the principles of her late mother, who taught in the Chicago Public Schools for more than 25 years.
The money and, presumably, technical participation of DARPA, are to begin a project that could very well take 100 years to develop its keystone product – an actual starship fueled by actual antimatter that is capable of travelling to planets orbiting distant stars.
It's a long trip. Using the chemical rockets that are the best we can do right now, it would take about nine months to get a ship with a human crew to Mars. (Unmanned missions can take longer and use less fuel because they don't have to keep anyone alive inside the capsule, especially the Mars Dirt Mission Specialist who keeps asking "Are we there yet?" every day no matter how often he's told it's not funny.)
That's three times as long as it took Christopher Columbus or the Pilgrims to travel to the new world, though Columbus thought he was making great time to the Philippines instead.
And Mars is only about 35 million miles away.
The nearest star (not the nearest one with planets we want to visit, just the closets one) is Proxima Centauri, 4.3 light-years or 25.3 trillion miles away.
It may be remedial for anyone reading this blog to talk about distance in space. But the scale of distances in space is so insane I doubt even most astrophysicists really grasp them as anything but numbers.
Are Mars and the future too far away for us to plan to go?
The real distances are simply too large to really be understood by brains designed to calculate whether falling out of a tree from this height would be fatal (assuming number of hungry prowling jaguars X and distance to next climbing point Y for proto-humans with an aptitude for calculus. Or actuarial statistics.)
At 93 million miles, the distance from the Sun to the Earth is several zeroes shorter than even the number of digits in the distance to the closest star.
If you wanted to roll the Earth to the Sun (across the surprisingly cheap and holey fabric of the space-time continuum, according to Star Trek officers who are always falling through it), it would take 3,720 complete rotations of the Earth to do it.
(You might suggest rolling it to Mars would be easier because it's closer, but that would be stupid. You're way too small to roll a whole planet, there's nowhere to stand and nothing to roll it on. Besides, there's a whole band of asteroids in the way that would get the Earth dirty and gritty, like an apple you drop in the sand, and then who would even want it?)
So. 4,000 rotations of the Earth to get to the Sun. That's a lot.
Proxima Centauri is 270,000 times farther away than the sun. 270,000 times. Not 270 million more miles. 93 million miles times 270,000.
That's still meaningless in real terms, but it sounds pretty impressive, if only because it's clear anyone who multiplies millions by thousands of anything is going to spend a long time hip deep in problems.
No gas for the trip. Not even antigas
Despite a confident assumption that antimatter will provide enough power to drive starships powered by rockets across the trillions of miles they will have to go between rest stops, antimatter is still a pretty unlikely propellant.
It's powerful enough. Antimatter engines, as we currently think of them, involve the injection of streams of antimatter onto a core of nuclear fuel. The anti-protons making up the antimatter are annihilated in a blast that can be focused with powerful magnetic fields until it is focused like a laser, making it even more efficient as a propellant.
The only problem, aside from our not knowing how to contain, store or use antimatter in such a mundane way, is that we don't have any.
Well, not much.
The volume of matter and antimatter in the universe should be about equal, according to most theories about the formation of the universe.
Due to a process known as "baryogenesis," the universe is made up of piles and piles of matter, but so little antimatter it's almost undetectable. Reasons vary from "we're working on it" to "who the hell knows." (Baryogenesis is the physics version of the medical "idiopathic," which sounds incisive but actually means "you just don't know, but I don't know in Latin."
Assuming the most likely theory – that baryogenesis is a misspelling of Barry O'Genesis, a giant gaelic space monster that devours antimatter because it's the low-calorie diet food of those who bestride the cosmos and snack on them – it doesn't matter why there's no antimatter around. We can make it even when we can't find it.
At the current rate of production of all the world's supercolliders combined, it would take 1,000 years to make a microgram of antimatter, according to TechStew.
Can hope and overcomes the laws of physics? Why not? It's worked for us so far.
That's a predictable rate of progression, at least, though it doesn't really compare to the 80 supertankers full of antimatter TechStew estimates would be needed to fuel a real trip to Proxima Centauri.
Clearly fuel efficiency will be an issue. So far, Prius is not involved in either the real space program or Jemison's aspirational, motivational project.
The elements that will make 100YSS or something like it successful are persistence and determination – and time, according to Jemison.
"We’re embarking on a journey across time and space," Jemison said. "If my language is dramatic, it is because the project is monumental. This is global aspiration. And each step of the way, its progress will benefit life on Earth. Our team is both invigorated and sobered by the confidence DARPA has in us to start an independent, private initiative to help make interstellar travel a reality."
This is an engineering project, however, not sociology or education. So regular conferences in odd locations are called for to allow engineers to publicly scoff at one another's work and complain about how Microsoft is trying to dominate the universes with Microsoft Con-Matter rather than the open-source anti-matter.
The next one will be held in Houston Sept. 13 of this year and will continue until the space ship is done or everyone runs out of clean socks (Sept. 16).
However farfetched the goal, both 100YSS and Jemison are serious about their goal. So is DARPA and its $500,000 in seed money and both Icarus Intersellar and the Foundation for Enterprise Development, non-profits dedicated to interstellar travel and employee-owned entrepreneurship, respectively.
Luckily Jemison and the foundation leading the century-long effort to build an antimatter understands their newest unrealistically optimistic project is unrealistically optimistic.
Time, technical development and the virtuous pursuit of pure knowledge will bring down barriers such as distance and time, according to Jemison. (Distance and time are almost the same thing in space, though on Earth there is a much closer correlation between time and boredom.)
"I recognize that the concept of humans travelling to other star systems may appear fantastical—but no more so than the fantasy of reaching the moon was in the days of H. G. Welles," Jemison wrote in announcing the project.
Methods can change if the goal remains the same
That was because Wells foresaw the day people would travel to the Moon inside the shells of giant cannon, arriving as freeze-dried layers of jam.
All the major laws of motion and most of thermodynamics had been defined by Wells' time; rockets were invented three-quarters of a century earlier (much earlier in China, but Wells wasn't writing from there).
Wells, who was no dummy, could very well have connected the two and realized it would take sustained thrust to get to and from the moon safely, consistency that is not available from most cannon after the first blast.
Instead, what thin brushes humans have had with real space were made possible by people with little interest in fantastical apparatuses, few literary aspirations and the temerity to ignore technological predictions from the man who invented fictional versions of the time machine, invisible man, invading extraterrestrial, flat-panel displays, laser, the joystick, poison gas (smoke), biological warfare, the atom bomb, automatic door, antigravity, conveyer belt, the answering machine, wireless router, cell phone, parallel universe, networked world and radioactive ruin.
That must have taken guts. Or ignorance.
By not knowing they were supposed to be inventing the real-world version of things Wells had already blue-skyed about, Einstein, von Braun, Goddard, Oberthand Laika helped prove a law of practical technology, if not of real science:
If you set yourself to wait for the perfection of a technology you're sure will solve all your problems, you'll die of old age or go broke before it's finished. And, by focusing on just on way of solving a whole series of complex problems, you'll miss half a dozen simpler, cheaper solutions built bit by jury-rigged bit and then turned into real technology.
Trying to imagine the kind of vessel we might be able to build in 100 years – down to predicting the kind of fuel it will use – is a sure path to someone's wall of fools, not the annals of science.
On the other hand, the odd, detail-free charter of the 100YSS is also a strength; Jemison said she intends to build a real starship, but only as the end product of a century's worth of education, promotion of education, broad-based scientific and technical development of the kind the government should promote through schools and corporations should promote in open-source development labs and workshops.
Jemison hasn't started a starship manufactory; she's started a skunk works designed to crank out not starships, but educated, curious, inventive, practical minds with the skills to turn over rocks to discover secrets the universe has hidden there.
She has started a movement to pick the best ideas from the best minds to overcome the gravity of Earth, distance of space and self-defeat of her fellow primates, to clear a path not to a single starship, but to the future itself.
Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.