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100-Year Starship Project, Led By Ex-Astronaut Mae Jemison, Sets Sights On Distant Stars

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100 YEAR STARSHIP
100-Year Starship program aims to develop technologies needed for interstellar travel. This artist's rendering shows a starship of the sort the technologies might make possible. | Adrian Mann/100 Year Starship

By: Jeremy Hsu, InnovationNewsDaily Senior Writer
Published: 05/21/2012 05:34 PM EDT on InnovationNewsDaily

Star Trek's bold vision of the starship Enterprise manned by a diverse crew may no longer just be science fiction — especially with the first woman astronaut of color heading the real-life project. The U.S. military has chosen Mae Jemison's nonprofit foundation to receive half a million dollars in seed funding to help turn the 100-Year Starship into reality.

The 100-Year Starship project faces the challenge of transforming the $500,000 from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) into an organization that does more than merely survive the next century. It must also spur the technological revolutions needed for human space travelers to survive the long journey to distant stars.

"We don't have to be the ones to actually send a starship out," said Mae Jemison, head of the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence. "Our task, our mission, is to make sure all the capabilities needed to mount a human interstellar mission exist."

Jemison became the first woman of color to travel in space during a 1992 mission aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, and has training as both an engineer and a physician. She named actress Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek's Lieutenant Uhara, as both a personal inspiration and as a supporter of 100 Year Starship.

100-Year Starship is expected to become its own organization separate from Jemison's nonprofit, the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, within six to nine months. Jemison also has plans for a scientific research institute within 100-Year Starship, called The Way, to study speculative, long-term science and technology suitable for starships.

Making leaps in technology

The technologies created by 100-Year Starship have the potential to transform life on Earth as well as space exploration. For instance, humans must come up with much better sources of power to enable a starship that either maintains steady power for a slow, 1,000-year voyage or uses an incredible burst of energy to travel faster than the speed of light.

"Any solution we come up with requires understanding of how to generate and control huge amounts of energy," Jemison told InnovationNewsDaily. "It could also transform energy here on Earth."

Futuristic starships must also produce enough food, water and air to sustain their crews for possibly hundreds of years during the journey and when humans reach their interstellar outposts or colonies. Similar self-sustaining technologies could allow humans to live more comfortably and sustainably here on planet Earth.

The crew members may spend the journey awake, hibernating in suspended animation, or as "DNA slush" that gets remixed and grown into full human beings at the journey's end. But they'll still need to grapple with the psychological issues of space travel or life far away from Earth.

"It'd be unfortunate if the crew didn't make it because they couldn't get along with each other," Jemison said. [Why 'Space Madness' Fears Haunted NASA's Past]

Surviving the next century

Still, survival for the 100-Year Starship project means much more than just building life support technologies for future starship crews. The organization must first figure out a business plan for sticking around the next 100 years — a balance between turning a profit and staying focused on the mission of enabling a starship.

"We know there are organizations that have intentionally or unintentionally been around for 100 years, ranging from the Catholic Church to the NAACP," Jemison explained. "The Girl Scouts turn 100 this year."

100-Year Starship may spin off for-profit companies as opportunities come up or launch crowd-funding projects, but Jemison emphasized that the organization cannot get distracted by making a profit off its technology breakthroughs. She envisions a model between a think tank and the legendary Bell Labs — an organization that famous for giving its researchers the freedom and time to pursue their work.

Survival also means giving the general public the chance to get involved with 100-Year Starship. Most ordinary people could only serve as "cheerleaders" for past NASA efforts such as the Apollo program's race to the moon, Jemison said. She hopes to broaden the scope for public participation from everyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender, geographical location or scientific field.

The first big public event for the fledgling 100-Year Starship organization will take place as a symposium in Houston from September 13-16 — a one-year follow-up to an earlier symposium held by DARPA and NASA in September 2011.

"I don't think the public lost their fascination with space at all," Jemison said. "I think they're just left out."

The 100-Year Starship team currently includes Icarus Interstellar, a nonprofit dedicated to enabling interstellar flight, and the Foundation for Enterprise Development. The SETI Institute has a permanent seat on the advisory council.

You can follow InnovationNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ScienceHsu. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.

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