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

Since its inception (okay, since the early 1960s) the United States has been the world leader in space travel and exploration, taking the lead in crafting mankind’s vision and agenda for humanity’s role in space. So it made sense when NASA and DARPA announced their joint “100-Year Starship” study last year to explore the possibility of a one-way manned mission to another planet. But this initiative isn’t quite as exciting as it seems; sure, the United States government would like to see humans explore and settle deep space. It just wants someone else to do it.

That’s a bit of a contrast from the moon landing, a feat that no private sector entity would have been able to achieve on its own at that time. Some projects are just too big for private industry to undertake, and these are the places where government is supposed to step up and organize the resources and manpower to do great things.

The 100-Year Starship won’t be one of those projects, at least if an official statement released yesterday is any indication.

Says Dave Neyland, Director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office:

“Looking at history, most significant exploration, like crossing oceans or continents for the first time, was sponsored by patrons or groups outside of government. We’re here because we’d like to start with a mechanism that gets this long-range project out of the government, and make sure it is an energized and self-sustaining enterprise.”

So the goal of the “100-Year Starship” is really just to get the ball rolling and then hand over the funding, organizing, and building of any eventual interplanetary starship to someone else who has the resources and resolve to see the job through. That is, someone with more technological and financial resources than the government of the United States of America.

Check back in a century and we’ll let you know how it goes.

[DARPA (PDF) via The Register]