When I was a child, hearing Miss Nancy conduct calisthenics on TV’s Romper Room (“Bend and stretch…reach for the stars…”) planted ideas about the wonders of the universe.
Years later, the title sequence of UPN’s Enterprise series (featuring the song Faith of the Heart and a montage of explorers past, present and future) kept those dreams alive.
So I’m glad that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wing of the Pentagon is launching the 100-Year Starship Study and offering a half-million-dollar grant to any person or group who can present the best plan for sending humans to the stars by 2111.
Of course not everyone is so enthusiastic, even though DARPA is credited with spearheading the development of the Internet.
The usual skeptics look at ambitions for interstellar travel and snort that they now see where the term “joint chiefs” comes from. (“They’re putting up SEED money? Hope those seeds are legal in this state.”)
There are many good reasons for the investment of time, money and lives.
A Pentagon spokesman elaborates, “Research could produce many spinoff benefits, such missions could alleviate earth’s overpopulation, a commitment to this inspiring project could help mankind find a sense of wonder again and we want to see if them theoretical buildings on Alpha Centauri’s planets blow up real good.”
Planning for the project is not limited to rocket scientists; the agency also seeks input from ethicists, science fiction writers, doctors, housing experts, even lawyers. (“Where no man has gone before? Hmm, sounds like a good basis for a class-action suit.”)
Theologians will help anticipate the religious questions that the project would inevitably generate.
These questions include “What is man’s place in the universe?,” “Would extraterrestrials be prone to sin?” and “Why didn’t the brochure warn me that my 72 virgins would have eye stalks and tentacles?”
The nearest star is 25 trillion miles away and would take 4,000 years to reach with conventional rockets. So until we develop Star Trek warp drive, the mission would be heavily dependent on cryogenics experts — as well as Anheuser-Busch, which would use its resources to calculate exactly how many choruses of “bottles of beer on the wall” it would take to reach the destination.
The vast distances would also make it difficult for the explorers to stay in contact with earth.
Perhaps DARPA should consult the true experts on faster-than-light communication: college students. (“Mom, Dad, I need you to send money – again.”)
A full century is needed not just for technological advances but for wrangling with the demands of conflicting interest groups and constituencies. (“Yes, nuclear fusion is acceptable for the propulsion system – as long as it’s CORN-based nuclear fusion.”)
Critics with no imagination grouse that the DARPA money could be better spent on schools or Social Security or other earthbound budget items; but I beg them to reconsider.
Public education, Social Security, the Interstate Highway System and health inspections all started as crazy experiments that opponents wanted to saddle with a low priority.
Now they’re integral parts of our society.
Let’s do this for the children (or at least the great-grandchildren). And don’t ruin youthful icons by making Buzz Lightyear announce, “To infinity and beyond — unless it takes money away from twice-weekly roadkill pickup.”
(Danny Tyree welcomes reader e-mail responses at email@example.com.)