Those issues and dozens of other knotty questions lured about 1,000 people to Orlando this weekend to discuss the 100 Year Starship project, also called 100YSS. The symposium, which was free and open to the public, drew dozens of off-duty government scientists and engineers, as well as educators, Hollywood producers, financiers, graduate students, business people, science fiction authors, astronauts and even a few lowly journalists.
The consensus of some of the best rocket scientists of our day is that there are basically two ways to cut down the transportation time to another star - build spaceships running on thermonuclear engines, or zap vehicles across the cosmos by bouncing laser beams off their sails. But the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is spearheading 100YSS with help from NASA, is open to new ideas, like anti-gravity engines, plasma shields and other technologies that now exist only in science fiction.
It was a fascinating gathering, both technically and culturally. Unlike previous government-organized space exploration initiatives, DARPA cast as wide a net as possible in its quest for capable minds and willing souls to nourish and evolve the idea. Symposium organizers received more than 500 submissions for paper abstracts and panel topics from people as far away as China, South Africa, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom, whose British Interplanetary Society has long studied concepts for interstellar space travel and which intends to publish papers from the symposium over the coming months.