What It Will Take to Become an Interstellar Civilization

By Sarah Scoles | October 28, 2014 1:07 pm


The new movie “Interstellar” is set in a not-so-distant future, but distant enough that they’ve managed to build something still elusive in 2014: a spaceship that can travel between solar systems. Such starships have been a technological mainstay in science fiction for decades, but they remain a crazily complicated proposition in everything from propulsion to human reproduction.

Still, that hasn’t stopped researchers from trying. Last month, a bunch of rocket scientists, microbiologists and entrepreneurs gathered in Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center to discuss—in level and serious tones—how to become a spacefaring civilization. The meeting is called the 100-Year Starship symposium, and it’s brought brains together once a year since 2011 to figure out what we need to do now if we want to have an interstellar spacerocket a century from now.

The group has made progress defining the challenges and pointing their noses toward solutions, but much work remains (like, say, building a starship). To quote Contact, it “sounds less like science and more like science fiction.”

Nonetheless, the 100-Year Starship adherents—backed by NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—keep plugging away. At their most recent gathering, 7 major hurdles emerged from their three days of discussion.

1. Before we can make an Enterprise, we may have to make an enterprise.

With all the obvious tech challenges, this top hurdle is easy to overlook—but it’s a question of human motivation. What would motivate people to work on something that won’t be finished till they’re dead? Like Veruca Salt, when we want things, we want them now.

But even if we manage to motivate ourselves, what mechanism can provide continuity in funding and oversight across decades, let alone across generations? Government funding is fickle and depends on election cycles and budget reviews. Philanthropy rests on the whims of the wealthy. The long-term viability of crowdfunding is unproven.

If we could create an “econosphere” around long-term space travel—one that makes money and produces spinoff products, so people get salaries and gadgets—it could support itself. Space travel may have to become a business. And not just any business: a profitable one. Companies like Virgin Galactic, Deep Space Industries, and Planetary Resources are aiming to do just that.

2. We have to move fast.

It’s in the very definition of the project that we have to get to the stars. But it took poor Voyager 38 years just to get out of the solar system. Ain’t nobody got time for that. We have to figure out how to move fast through space, for a long-ass time. Engineers have a few ideas: Fusion rockets, ion drives, hydrogen-scooping ramjets, and antimatter annihilation systems, for instance.

3. Staying alive, staying alive.

A starship has to be both sustainable and life-sustaining. It will be a closed ecosystem that must either have or produce everything humans need to survive and make more humans.

Oxygen, food, and water are no-brainers. But we also need our microbiome, and we’re only now starting to investigate what happens to our symbiotic microbes off-Earth. The microbiomes of babies born en route remain a totally open question. And if they’re in microgravity, will those babies’ eye cells know where to migrate to become eye cells?

4. Take me to the space hospital.

Nobody likes going to the hospital, but it’s nice to know they’re there if you get MRSA or need an MRI. An interstellar starship will have limited machinery, limited medicine, a limited supply of doctors. Plus, access to new Earth-medicine techniques would be delayed or nonexistent. (If the ship travels, say, a light-year away, word of a cancer treatment discovery would take a year to reach the crew.) Its residents would in turn need to train the next generation of caregivers.

Medical professionals draw parallels between this situation and that in developing nations with little health-care infrastructure. Studying either could benefit the other.

5. Crew-on-crew interaction.

After a certain amount of time locked in a room together, you and even the most unobtrusive person will get on each other’s nerves. You’ll be like, “Why do you always have to look at me like that?” and they’ll be like, “I’m not looking at you like anything.” Etc. Now imagine that drawn out over years or decades on an interstellar mission.

And beyond the everyday communication problems, disseminating information in a crisis—without causing panic or misinformation—could prove difficult. Imagine small-town social dynamics, in space. That’s why it’s important to choose a mix of crew members most likely to succeed.

But first we have to find out what that mix is. Agencies across the world are already investigating this psychological puzzler. The Mars HI-SEAS experiment began its third mission on October 15, and six (lucky?) people will spend eight months on a simulated martian colony in Hawaii. The European Space Agency teamed up from 2007-2011 with the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems to do the Mars 500 mission, in which three different crews experienced isolation together aboard a pseudo-spaceship and then on a pseudo-Martian surface.

6. Oops-factor.

When you break your printer beyond repair, you go buy a new one. But when you break your 3-D space printer that makes all of the parts for your other space stuff? You’re in trouble. The 100-Year Starship team is endorsing what they term a “steampunk” approach: Teaching spacefarers how to make high-tech things work with low-tech, macgyvered solutions.

7. Stepping stones.

One does not simply walk into Mordor, and one does not simply build an interstellar starship. Giant leaps aren’t real: They’re just a bunch small steps added together. To become interstellar, we have to start with simply sending humans to space regularly, cheaply. We have to start manufacturing and mining off-planet. And we need to establish human colonies on the Moon, and probably on Mars, to make sure we have enough resources and practice before we set off toward Earth 2.0.

Currently, the best bet rests in the hands of private industry. NASA’s asteroid capture mission promises a step in that direction. But private companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, which have both announced partnerships with NASA, may be able to make space their material domain faster and cheaper.


Image by / Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    a crazily complicated proposition” Seriously travel by uncoupling gravitational and inertial masses. Einstein-Cartan-Kibble-Sciama gravitation is the recipe. It is existing apparatus bench top testable four different ways, all of them chemical. A 90-day kludge is 5×10^(-14) difference/average sensitive. Three others require 24 hours to be 16,900 times better.

    Green’s function uncreates an exploitable physics loophole. Theorists are self-excluded from empirical solutions. Chemistry cannot address gravitation! All swans are white, too. The greatest obstacle to understanding reality is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. Look.

    • facefault

      >Einstein-Cartan-Kibble-Sciama gravitation is the recipe. It is existing apparatus bench top testable four different ways, all of them chemical.

      >Chemistry cannot address gravitation!

      Your claims are not self-consistent. Is there any useful information in your comment?

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        You missed the sarcasm. Ms. Scoles being adventurous and exciting, let’s look at specific experiments. Success and failure are both consistent with all prior observations in all venues at all scales.

        Try to find a white polar bear in a white snow field. Bang that drum all you want, or use an ultraviolet camera wherein snow is white but polar bears are black. Do it the other way. All swans were white everywhere, except in Australia,

        General Buck Turgidson, “Well, I, uh, don’t think it’s quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir.” Dr. Strangelove The “single slip-up” sent 1400 megatons to bomb the USSR.

        • John Smith

          Your comments are works of beauty

        • MorlockSlayer

          My favorite character in that movie was Major Bat Guano. I saw it in a theatre over fifty years ago as a teenager and the minute he said his name I burst out laughing.

        • Thomas Thorne

          You’re posting too much irrelevant nonsense. Parables are not science. The visibility of polar bears has nothing to do with anything. Do you have any sources or explanations for your assertion? How does Einstein-Cartan-Kibble-Sciama gravitation link gravity to chemistry? What is that experiment you’re talking about? How are people supposed to tell your ideas from a schizophrenic’s with presentation like that?

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Lot of upticks here! If vacuum is not exactly isotropic, Noether’s theorems do not enforce exact conservation of angular momentum. Opposite shoes embed within a revealed vacuum left foot with different energies. Things do not vacuum free fall identically. New propulsions appear.

    Some single crystals have their atoms in all left-handed helices or all right-handed helices (opposite shoes), e.g., alpha-quartz, gamma-glycine, benzil. A 90-day Eötvös experiment running 40 grams of alpha-quartz as 8 test masses compares 6.68×10^22 pairs of opposite shoes (pairs of 9-atom enantiomorphic unit cells), below.

    Opposite shoes on a left foot fit with different energies, socks fit with identical energies. Melt opposite shoes into identical socks. Different energy inputs are required. Benzil melts at 94.85 °C. Melt one crystal of each in paired calorimeters, heat of fusion, second image below. One run each 30 minutes for 24 hours to cover footnotes.

    Right-handed propellers and left-handed propellers spin with different energies in left-handed vacuum. Shoot opposite molecular propellers through a microwave (dipole moment) or Raman spectrometer (no dipole moment) for rotational spectra. One degenerate spectrum confirms isotropic vacuum. Two spectra rewrite vacuum physics. Synthesis of test molecules, last image. Look

  • http://dev.blogs.discovermagazine.com Robin Rocklin

    Think about fixing the issues of our planet first. Too many people, unsustainable practices and destroying our environment. We are probably screwed as a species if the planet heats up to the point we alter the atmosphere.

    • kilvehk

      nah. the majority of humans are idiots and will keep on destroying the earth. i would like to get off this planet before they finish destroying it.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        “God owns this real estate” say His bill collectors. Move out to be a landlord not a tenant.

        • kilvehk


      • Flossie

        You should be able to figure that out…..being the smartest person in the world and all.

        • kilvehk

          nice strawman.

          • Flossie

            The Strawman Conspiracy Theory….lol

    • Stereotypical_White_Fella

      there will always be problems down on earth, it will never be perfect. There will be problems up there too if we ever make it

  • Keith Wiley

    Was my previous comment rejected by the moderator?

  • Keith Wiley

    I wrote about this after attending the first 100-year-starship conference. We will never travel to the stars “as biological humans” because computerized intelligence (in one of two forms, either AI or mind-uploading) will arrive as a technology before the technologies of interstellar transportation, and will obviate biological missions. Only computerized beings will ever go interstellar because it is much much cheaper and easier for them than for biological organisms.

    I would add a link to the article, but the comment system keeps rejecting my comment, so that may be the problem. Please google “Implications of Computerized Intelligence on Interstellar Travel” to see the article.


    • mbkeefer

      Sure we will. It wil take thousands of years, but we will get there. Once we have practical fusion. People will move to Titan. It is a world that requires no protection from radiation or pressure suits. Just protection from the cold and a power source.

      Once that is working well, Some will decide to go below grade and move to Triton. Then out to Pluto and other dwarf planets in the Kuiper belt. Then we will locate ones in the Oort cloud and colonize those. Eventually it will be a short hop (a few years in the latest design) to the Oort cloud of another star system. Then in few centuries that star system is fully settled while the fringes of its Oort cloud is getting explored and settled as well. Then a leap to the next Oort cloud and so on. In a few million years Humanity (or its decendants) would occupy the entire galaxy.

      That is, if we do not screw up and maroon our selves on this rock, instead.

      • Keith Wiley

        You clearly didn’t read the article I mentioned in my previous comment. I stand by my earlier claims.

        • mbkeefer

          More likely two other paths will happen.
          Humanity will not allow such robotic developement to occur.
          Or it does occur and humanity promptly becomes extinct.

        • joseph2237

          I like the idea of colonizing Titian. Imagine what a pair of scopes one one in orbit around Earth the other orbit around Titian and sync together. that kind of scope wound be totally awesome.

      • Alex Scali

        ))). I wrote in school review about Oort cloud. 25 years ago (. My forecast-no few million years-20 000 years !

        • mbkeefer

          That would be fantastic. Good chance it would still be humans spreading across the galaxy.

    • Alex Scali


  • Ramond Gonzalaz

    They forgot fixing the socio economic issues that inhibits us from having a generally smarter population.

    • RandomViewer

      Genetic manipulation will take care of that. But who can guarantee that new smarter population will improve economic or social situation and will they even care about being interstellar species. Hmm in that case we also need anti-greed pills to be available at Shoppers Drug mart as a daily supplement. “Natural” genius.

      • Thomas Thorne

        Genetic manipulation ain’t gonna fix it. Our population is stupid because of the nurture, not the nature. The grand majority of people on Earth are born with the same equipment, but very few get the privilege of sharpening it.

        • RandomViewer

          My hope is that opportunity will be less of a privilege and more of a right. For this to happen lots of stereotypes have to be broken and I don’t think there is a machine or a pill that can correct this as of today.

          • Thomas Thorne

            One day we’ll have meritocracy. One day Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision might actually come true.

      • Iam Kd Smith

        if we could improve our collective intelligence economics should be a moot point

  • Jerry G.

    Going out in to deep space and exploring far off planets sounds terrific and exciting. We have far to go in development of our technology and capability to do this efficiently and safely. The risk is very high. If anything critical goes wrong and it cannot be properly fixed in very short time, depending what the fault it the crew can be in grave danger.

    When looking at the overall society we are part of, we have a pathetic human race that needs a lot of improvement. The way it is going I think we are really in a hopeless situation, and have been for thousands of years.

  • Juan Carlos Avila

    Why don’t invent a 3D printer that can print a 3D Printer? 😉

    • David Gaskill

      We’d run out of feedstock.

  • George Meladze

    I think interstellar journeys are possible. It may turn out that to travel faster than light is possible, or there may be other ways.

  • Tim Guba

    It will take but one thing, the purging of human greed.

  • kurt9

    O’neill (L5 Society concept) style settlement of our own solar system seems like a necessary first step prior to interstellar travel. If anything, such a solar system wide civilization will have the industrial capability that makes such interstellar travel possible. Such settlement alone will take several centuries. Short of a breakthrough in making wormholes or other exotic stuff, interstellar migration is a 23rd or 24th century prospect. We have to learn to walk before we can run.

  • kilvehk

    cheaper yes. but all things get cheaper with time. eventually it will get to a point where sending humans is just cheap enough that we won’t care that computers are cheaper because the extra cost is worth the extra awesomeness.

    • Keith Wiley

      Frankly, there will be nothing left to send. Humanity will have completely transitioned to computerized intelligence by the time you are describing in your comment, so no, we won’t ever send biological humans to the stars. Sorry. You may as well ask why we never paddle-boated across the ocean. We certainly could with various fancy technologies, but there’s simply no point since we have other technologies that utterly obviate such an endeavor. I’m not convinced you actually read the article I offered in my previous comment. Give it a shot.

      • kilvehk

        you underestimate humans. we have the technology to make virtual exploration of other countries possible. nobody is doing it. we humans have an internal drive to explore, to see new things with our own eyes. to interact with new things ourselves. we keep sending probes to mars but guess what we are trying to do anyways? establish a colony on mars.

        • Keith Wiley

          Nah, I’m not underestimating anything. Thanks anyway. You’re just misunderstanding my use of the term ‘computerized intelligence’. I’m not referring to artificial intelligence, but rather to mind uploading. Your reference to an internal drive to explore and seeing things with our own eyes and interacting with things ourselves is all perfectly reasonable. What is incorrect is you presumption that we will simply send ‘probes’ into space forever. By the time interstellar travel is possible we will have perfected the computerization of our own brains. I really really really really don’t think you ever read the article I referenced earlier. I won’t discuss this with you further until you do. Until you read it, simply don’t understand my point. Furthermore, you awoke a discussion from seven months ago that was long ago dried up. I have entertained a few back and forth comments with you, but I’m done, both due to this comment section’s out-of-dateness and due to the fact that you clearly haven’t read the one primary reference I gave you. If you don’t want to read it, that’s entirely up to you, but you can’t claim to understand my point if you don’t actually read the description of my point. Up to you. Cheers!

  • J_stoned

    I think the key to interstellar travel is gravity. Its the biggest force is the universe. If we can harness gravity and use it for propulsion, we wouldnt have to worry about generations dying on the voyage. We know it dialates time, and we can effectively time travel if we are close to a black hole. If the government spent the military budget on funding space technology we would have interstellar travel alot sooner. But they are to worried about oil and propaganda. #ranting

  • Carrol Freedman

    All this could be solved by first developing a means to travel at the speed of light or faster.

  • David Gaskill

    “The true study of humans is everything… the true study of humans is humans.”

  • Orkun Doğan

    First off, we need to stop fighting amonst ourselves. What if aliens ignore us because we still are such a primitive species which still fight among themselves? :) 😛 Seriously though, in order to move forward to greatness first we need to stop stalling ourselves.

  • samuraisarepussies

    How did this article fail to mention Spacex?

  • Jack Nick Olsen

    There’s just the one Solar system.
    It’s the one with Sol in it.
    Hence the name.
    This is not hard.

  • joseph2237

    Agree with most here but am hoping some invents a warp drive in the back yard. Plus we don’t know everything about gravity and it maybe faster than light.


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