May 24, 2012, 5:33 PM — 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.
Icarus Project/Adrian Mann