by Amara D. Angelica
October 18, 2010
Video of Pete Worden and Peter Schwartz.
Audio podcast of the
full 19-minute conversation below:
NASA Ames Director Simon “Pete”
revealed Saturday that NASA Ames has,
“just started a project with DARPA called the Hundred Year Starship,” with $1 million funding
from DARPA and $100K from NASA.
“You heard it here,” said Worden at
'Long Conversation,' a Long Now Foundation event in San
“We also hope to inveigle some billionaires to form a
Hundred Year Starship fund,” Dr. Worden added. “I absolutely
will be on board.” (No further details on this are available
from NASA at this time.)
“The human space program is now really aimed at settling other
worlds,” he explained. “Twenty years ago you had to whisper that
in dark bars and get fired.”
(Worden was in fact fired by
George W. Bush, he also revealed.)
Worden also mentioned some nearer-term ideas that NASA is exploring
(and that are not necessarily related to the Starship program).
new propulsion concept is electric propulsion, said Worden.
that watches the [Star Trek] Enterprise, you know you don’t see huge
plumes of fire. Within a few years we will see the first true
prototype of a spaceship that will take us between worlds.”
Worden said NASA is also funding a new program to develop
thermal propulsion for getting to orbit.
“The idea is if you can
beam power to the spaceship, so you don’t have to carry all the
fuel; and then you use that energy from a laser or microwave power
to heat a propellant; it gets you a pretty big factor of
improvement. I think that’s one way of getting off the world.”
The principal investigator of this program is Dr.
Kevin L.G. Parkin,
who invented the technology and described it in
his PhD thesis. He
is assisted by Creon Levit and David Murakami.
Caltech grad student Dmitriy Tseliakhovich has also formed a company called
Dynamics LLC to commercialize the microwave thermal propulsion
project. (Tseliakhovich’s team project at
this past summer grew out of Parkin’s work.)
microwave thermal thruster using beamed propulsion is an
excellent idea,” said Dr. Narayanan M. Komerath, a professor at
Georgia Tech College of Engineering and a NASA Institute of Advanced
“[Kevin Parkin] picks the 140 GHz window, which
apparently offers strong advantages in absorption by the materials
that he uses in the propulsion system.”
settlements and electric planes
But Worden warned that in settling on other worlds, we need to be
“How do you live in another world? I don’t have the
slightest idea,” he said.
“If you’re a conservative, you worry about
it killing us; if you’re a liberal, you worry about us killing it. I
think things like
synthetic biology have lot of potential for that.
I think rather than make an environment on Mars like Earth, why
don’t we modify life… including the human genome… so it’s better
suited to [Mars]?”
Worden also thinks we should go to the moons of
Mars first, where we
can do extensive telerobotics exploration of the planet.
we’ll be on the moons of Mars by 2030 or so. Larry [Page] asked me a
couple weeks ago how much it would cost to send people one way to
Mars and I told him $10 billion, and his response was, ‘Can you get
it down to 1 or 2 billion?’ So now we’re starting to get a little
argument over the price.”
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Worden says NASA Ames is exploring another
radical new concept: a heavy-lift airship that could carry hundreds
“I think that could revolutionize
air transport, because it becomes very cheap and still goes 100
knots. The idea is that you could easily go to Hawaii overnight,
for example… with a lot less fuel.
“The long-term answer [to the
rapidly accelerating growth of travel in the developing world
and the increase in greenhouse gas] is a 'Tesla in the air' -
using high-density batteries powered off ground-based solar
grids, so your airliner stays plugged in overnight, and it’s got
an electrical engine rather than a chemical engine. I think
within ten years we’ll have small-scale business-level ones, and
within 20, they’ll be the airliners.
“If we don’t, I think aviation’s through.”