Let’s Reconstitute Humans From Genomes Launched Into Space! and Other Ambitious Proposals for Galactic Colonization

DARPA's 100-Year Starship project is getting underway
Gliese 581 and its exoplanets are only 20 light years away (okay, so that's still a long way off), but we won't be visiting them unless someone builds us a starship. ESO

Fragmented human genomes could be shipped toward the stars and reconstructed upon their arrival, spawning the first interstellar citizens and avoiding the problems of long-distance space survival.

That’s just one idea — proposed by genome pioneer J. Craig Venter — emerging from the field of dreams seeded by DARPA’s 100-Year Starship project. DARPA is collecting proposals for a conference on the starship project this fall.

You can submit ideas through July 8; find out more here.

We have no idea what interstellar travel might look like in 100 years, of course — just as Jules Verne could never have conceived of the technology required to really send humans to the moon when he wrote about it in 1865. But if we start now, we can make it happen, according to David Neyland, who directs DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office.

“One hundred years is a pretty good period of time in terms of inspiring research to go off and tackle really hard problems that you don’t even know which questions to ask at the beginning,” he said in a conference call Thursday.

Neyland approached Pete Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, last fall and the two talked about how to spur a starship project. The goal is not necessarily to build a spaceship, Neyland explained, but rather to spur the monumental technology advances that would be required for such a feat. So the 100-Year Starship is more like a thought experiment than a construction project.

“One hundred years from now, there will be capabilities coming out of this that benefit us in the Department of Defense and the civilian sector, but also give us the capabilities of building the starship if we chose to do so,” Neyland said.

So now DARPA is soliciting ideas for the types of questions that would need to be addressed for this to happen, from the practical to the fantastical. Along with the physics behind concepts like time dilation, DARPA wants people from all walks of life to raise questions — from the moral and ethical implications of leaving forever, to the energy, agricultural and medical requirements involved, to political and legal considerations.

DARPA held a workshop in January and invited a host of science fiction authors, physicists, biologists and other thinkers, who all posed questions about a hypothetical journey to the stars. That’s where Venter’s genome proposal came up, Neyland said.

DARPA took that group’s questions and solicited a request for information, which we told you about back in May. Those proposals were due June 3, and now DARPA is synthesizing them into a formal request for proposals, which will be unveiled at a conference Sept. 30-Oct. 2 in Orlando. After that, DARPA will award a contract, worth around $500,000 depending on several factors, for some kind of entity that will take over the next 100 years of planning. The winner doesn’t have to be from the U.S., and DARPA is noncommittal on whether it would be a non-profit or for-profit venture.

“The crux, to us, is inspiration of research — not just in solving the physics-based problems. It’s across all of the domains,” Neyland said.

Since the project first emerged last fall, when Worden described it at a speech at Singularity University, Worden and Neyland have received several calls from people who want to lend money to the effort. Neyland wouldn’t say who, but he said he’s told these would-be interstellar investors they should consider writing a proposal.

Neyland said he could only imagine the benefits that could come from planning an interstellar ship. NASA probably didn’t envision a market for cordless power tools when it first built them for the moon missions, for instance.

“Those unpredictable and ancillary things go back into the Department of Defense as well as the commercial sector and the public sector, and benefits all of us,” he said.