(via TPM) DARPA is set to announce a half-million dollars in grant money as Project Icarus comes to a close. The project’s goal is pretty cool: get a bunch of scientists to come up with a fairly technical and complete set of specs for an interstellar probe. You can see the various areas of attention, though details are sparse. I’m on my netbook and navigating the various pages is pretty irritating, but from what I can gather the idea is to design a space program to propel humanity into interstellar travel within 100 years.
RE and I have debated such projects before, and we often disagree on the value of such research. Personally, I’m all for any research into the unknown, and I’m sure RE agrees that $500,000 is a drop in the bucket for DARPA. The project director tried to put a little Apollo spin on the benefits:
Spin-offs from space-based research programs have typically proven to be extremely fruitful.
For example, The Apollo program, which sent men to the moon lead to spin-offs including: kidney dialysis machines, water purification technology, GPS navigation and more.
It also accelerated the development of miniaturization technologies which lead to the microprocessor industry.
But this isn’t Apollo. While NASA had to figure out water filtration systems in order to keep astronauts alive, Project Icarus merely has to come up with specs saying “We need X to keep astronauts alive.” This is a very preliminary step, one which is never going to lead to any real results, and thus there will never be pressure to solve problems (and in turn lead to spin off industries).
In the long run, I think it’s still a good project. We, as a species, are far too short sighted. We argue about alternative energies when we know that petroleum is a limited resource, because we don’t think it’ll run out “anytime soon”. To us, the difference between 10 years and 50 years is infinite, while in reality it’s just a blink of an eye. Human beings have been around for 200,000 years, and faced with existential threats like climate change we’re still more concerned with kicking people off airplanes. Thinking long term is a skill that needs to be pushed into our cultural consciousness.
If interstellar travel seems too Star Trek for you, and you’re feeling more Mad Max, check out the 10,000 year clock, designed to operate with minimal maintenance and a cuckoo every thousand years, under construction now. The principles give a pretty skeptical view of the future.