MAY 29, 2012
In the midst of the nation’s dire financial crisis, the U.S. government has given a former astronaut half a million dollars to launch a seemingly delusional idea to send “explorers” to another star system.
By the government’s own account it’s a “dream” that may never come true considering these facts published in the mainstream newspaper that reported the grant; trips to the moon take three days each way and Mars, the next planet over, takes a robotic flier nine months to reach. Based on those speeds the journey to the nearest neighboring star would take tens of thousands of years. In five decades of space exploration scientists have not been able to make a dent on that figure.
To actually reach stars, a starship would need giant engines that draw more power than mankind knows how to produce, according to a top National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientist quoted in the news story. He says that “maybe if we get creative in our engineering we can do this.” The question is does this dream and exercise in creativity deserve taxpayer dollars?
The cash is being doled out by an agency that most Americans may not be familiar with. It’s called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and it was established in 1958 to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military and prevent technological surprise from compromising national security. To fulfill this crucial mission as the Pentagon’s primary innovation engine, DARPA relies on research that creates lasting revolutionary change.
How that applies to this particular project may escape a huge chunk of the civilian population. Here is an indicator of the reasoning behind the government allocation from the mainstream newspaper linked above; the former NASA astronaut who got the cash, Mae Jamison, was the “first woman of color to leave earth on the space shuttle” in 1992. She’s also a physician, engineer, entrepreneur and champion of science education.
Indeed Jamison’s credentials are impressive, but does that justify $500,000 for her self-described mission to “generate excitement for a grand human adventure?” Sounds more like an amusement-park thrill ride. A technology magazine puts it mildly by calling it an “ambitious project” that will, among other things, be open to “socio-cultural consideration” and “opportunities to the stars.”
Jemison describes it as a “monumental” project with “global aspiration.” The former astronaut assures that each step of the way, its progress will benefit life on earth. “We’re embarking on a journey across time and space,” she said. “Our team is both invigorated and sobered by the confidence DARPA has in us to start an independent, private initiative to help make interstellar travel a reality.”
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