Star Children: Return to Home

by on May 20, 2011 at 2:28 pm in Current Affairs, Economics, Religion, Science | Permalink

DARPA, believe it or not, has a request for information on what they call the 100 YEAR STARSHIP™ STUDY.

Neither the vagaries of the modern fiscal cycle, nor net-present-value calculations over reasonably foreseeable futures, have lent themselves to the kinds of century-long patronage and persistence needed to definitively transform mankind into a space-faring species.

The 100 Year Starship™ Study is a project seeded by DARPA to develop a viable and sustainable model for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel practicable and feasible….

We are seeking ideas for an organization, business model and approach appropriate for a self-sustaining investment vehicle. The respondent must focus on flexible yet robust mechanisms by which an endowment can be created and sustained, wholly devoid of government subsidy or control, and by which worthwhile undertakings—in the sciences, engineering, humanities, or the arts—may be awarded in pursuit of the vision of interstellar flight….

Responses should describe the:

• Organizational structure;
• Governance mechanism;
• Investment strategy and criteria; and
• Business model for long-term self-sustainment.

The best model we have of such an organization is a religion. Business organizations such as the Hudson’s Bay Company have occasionally lasted hundreds of years but more by accident than by design. Universities have lasted hundreds of years, although often with government support and vague missions. A few foundations have lasted for a long period of time but often with big mission changes.

Many religions, however, have maintained themselves more or less intact for over a thousand years. Even in the modern age, new religions appear to be quite capable of forming and maintaining themselves for long periods of time. Mormonism has been on-going for nearly two centuries, the Unification Church and Scientology (n.b. started by a science-fiction writer) have been on-going for over half a century. A religion with a million or so adherents can easily last for hundreds of years while generating substantial revenues and while maintaining focus.

Humanity was born of the stars, our very atoms forged in the heart of a million suns. It is in the stars that we lost travelers will find our true home and our true destiny. The twinkling lights of the yawning sky gently call to us each night to return to the place of our birth. We must answer that call. Star-children, return to home.

(See what I mean? This could work. )

Hat tip: Daniel Kuehn.

Andrew' May 20, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Tell DARPA there is a domestic terrorist on Uranus. We’ll get there.

Benito May 20, 2011 at 2:42 pm

Steven Gould (the sci-fi writer, not the late science writer Stephen J. Gould) considered this idea in his novel “Helm” about inventing a culture for space colonists who would be completely cut off from Earth. He specifically noted Judaism for two things: strict rules about eating and hygiene as well as a literacy test at age 13. The book also involved the martial art Aikido.

Ultimately the problem is that you need the sort of highly skilled engineers/sailors that are happy spending most of their lives in a submarine or oil rig for the voyage, and upon landing (at a presumably green, hospitable planet) you need Stone Age know-how to be filthy all the time, eat whatever protein is available, and make simple tools out of local materials. Note that the original settlement of the shifting “western wilderness” of the US involved industrial-age people reverting to a mostly hunter-gatherer existence.

TGGP May 22, 2011 at 1:50 am

I’ve heard some dispute the claim that Stephen Jay’s writings weren’t fiction :)

Adrian Ratnapala May 23, 2011 at 4:15 am

The planet won’t be green, and so hunter-gather won’t cut it. But I expect a certain badass settler attitude will be necessary.

Nick_L May 20, 2011 at 2:42 pm

Calling all Telephone Sanitisers…

Benito May 20, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Oh, and there are plenty of monarchies around the world that fit the model for hundreds or thousands of year stability.

Clinton May 21, 2011 at 1:26 am

In many cases claiming authority from God, so we are back to religion (and control of it).

Lindsay Lennox May 20, 2011 at 3:03 pm

On first read, I suspected the last paragraph of being lifted out of some obscure Heinlein novel. Maybe this one (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_for_the_Stars).

One problem with long-time-frame space travel generally (and even more so with a model built around religious belief) is the tendency towards magnification of certain personality quirks that are at least partially heritable. In particular, people with powerful religious visions (or, subject to ‘metamagical thinking,’ as Sapolsky called it) are likely to have some schizophrenia-linked genes already turned on, so reinforcement in a limited gene pool already high in visionaries is likely to be a problem. Presumably the same math applies to risk-taking, insofar as any aspect of that behavior is heritable.

Lindsay Lennox May 20, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Sadly, though, it appears that the DARPA RFI is just about how to sustainably *fund* 100 years of research into space travel, not how to create a long-term space mission (which would be a much more interesting question).

AL May 20, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Wouldn’t a nationalist claim be easier and less… strange? It’s hard to evangelize a religion based on a DARPA grant competition. It’s much easier to lay stately claim to some extra-terrestrial dirt, no?

There is no land left to claim for those who wish to adhere to an alternative system of government, but this would give them that opportunity. Sounds like a worthwhile movement to me.

skeptic May 20, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Note that every single major religion became major only after substantial government subsidy. Plus religions tends to splinter in to competing factions within decades of the death of the founder.

Aaron May 20, 2011 at 3:44 pm

I don’t know that it’s accurate to say that it was governmental subsidies that allowed minor religions to make the jump to the big time – certainly not in the case of Judaism or Islam, and even in the case of the various sects of Christianity, often it was more a case of the sect taking over the government than of the government choosing favorites. Certainly there are cases that fit your model (Western Christianity in the age of Constantine), but it’s not universal.

Andrew Edwards May 20, 2011 at 3:28 pm

There are some European banking dynsaties which have lasted centuries as well.

So family as well as religion, then.

Tomasz Wegrzanowski May 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm

You are seriously underestimating how drastically religions change. The name stays the same, there’s some sort of continuity, but a Pope from even 19th century wouldn’t recognize modern Catholic church, and let’s not even start talking about the mess of churches that came out of reformation.

Alex Hoopes May 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm

@Benito
I think any such mission would almost certainly involve attaching a huge container full of equipment to the spacecraft. I feel as though any hypothetical space flight would be more comfortable than you think. The ship itself would probably need a powerful water filtration system along a huge water tank for the years, decades, centuries long flight. A sustainable food source would be needed for the same reason, so plant protein will probably be part of the plan. Reversion to lower technology would probably take a few generations after planetfall since we would, hopefully, be giving our intrepid crew plenty of backup equipment. Hell, if we had some of Yglesias’ proletariat robots, how many problems would we realistically have?

Finch May 20, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Yeah, it’s not like we’re packing up the starship tomorrow. In a hundred years we may be able to pack quite a bit of information and manufacturing capability in a small space.

Benito May 20, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Not to get gross, but the first human settlers on an alien planet are going to have to give up a lot of creature comforts that we’ve come to associate with a technologically modern civilization. You can only pack so much toilet paper for the voyage. The first crop of babies isn’t going to be able to rely on disposable diapers. And everyone’s going to be using hand-dug latrines because it takes a while to build plumbing systems and ceramics factories.

You need someone that knows how to grow some grain and make a broom from scratch rather than someone that relies on a vacuum cleaner and just buys a new one when it breaks. There’s a classic economics example about how much is required to manufacture a pencil; now apply that to new hard drives and LCD screens and everything else. Our first interstellar pioneers are going to have to be people that can walk naked into the woods and walk back out a year later without dying.

Finch May 20, 2011 at 5:21 pm

Why would you think that? I’d assume they’d have a box that could assemble anything within reason from chemical feedstock. We’re much closer to that sort of technology than interstellar flight. Again, this isn’t something we’re going to do tomorrow. The technology of star travelers will be effectively magical to us.

Benito May 20, 2011 at 5:43 pm

To make a set of iPod earphones you need latex trees for rubber (probably not present on the alien planet) and neodymium to make the speaker assembly. There’s other things like making durable car tires that requires lots of steps in the vulcanization process that can’t be done through simple 3D modeling.

I’m not trying to dump on the whole idea of interstellar colonization, but if you look at simple things like paper manufacturing you’ll see that said explorers are going to have to rough it for a long time. Even things like canning/jarring food requires a certain industrial infrastructure to mine metals and make glass.

Finch May 20, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Do you really think that people who can build (and pay for) starships will have a problem making rubber?

They’ll send nanobots ahead and have luxury resorts waiting for them.

I’m far from saying star travel will be easy. In fact, I’m not even confident it’s possible. But material needs once we arrive at our destination will be a completely insignificant problem for a civilization that’s up to the transportation challenge.

Alex Hoopes May 20, 2011 at 5:47 pm

I really feel you’re underestimating both the technological gains, and the scale that such a hypothetical mission would take. Were it near feasible, I imagine most developed nations would be willing to contribute money and material in exchange for getting a contingent aboard (or for the prestige), meaning we will likely be able to build a massive ship (indeed, the logistics of interstellar travel probably demands construction on a previously unimagined scale), with appropriately massive storage capabilities.

Also, the chances of finding a planet with a breathable atmosphere right off the bat is, I’m guessing, pretty unlikely. The colonists will almost certainly have to live their entire lives inside a constructed habitat while work is done to make the planet habitable for humanity, and while this places some pretty significant limits on their ability to grow and develop, it also almost certainly guarantees some modern comforts like indoor plumbing. And toilet paper and diapers will probably be made from cloth, and cleaned periodically using that indoor plumbing system.

Wow, I am such a nerd.

JCL May 20, 2011 at 6:46 pm

The image that comes to my mind is that of the early American settlers

Nick May 20, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Obligatory xkcd:

http://xkcd.com/893/

Rollover text: “The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there’s no good reason to go into space–each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.”

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Maybe there is no economically rational way to explore space. But yeah, a religion would fit the bill.

Michael Nielsen May 20, 2011 at 4:15 pm

There are many companies that have lasted over a thousand years: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_oldest_companies

Sadly, the oldest of all, the Kongo Gumi construction company (origins circa 578 CE), went into receivership just a few years ago. The last president was the 40th member of the Kongo family to run the firm.

Owen Rodgers May 20, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Would all the travelers dress like Paul Stanley’s Starchild persona from KISS? That would be pretty neat.

dawinian roadkill May 20, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Do it like the Polynesians,hopping planet to planet over centuries with real starship tech like this:
https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http://www.space-nation.org/images/a/a1/Mini-Mag_Orion_and_superconducting_coils_for_near-term_interstellar_transportation_LenardAndrews.pdf&embedded=true&chrome=true

Further discussion of concept at Brian Wang’s Next Big Future blog:
http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/minimag-for-near-term-interstellar.html

It may be more practical though for Darpa to first revisit the ideas of Clynes & Kline from 1960 for surviving in space as these might have real practical spin offs in the biomedical field on earth (replacement organs,etc..).

See:
http://books.google.tt/books?id=N08EAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA77&dq=cyborg%20and%20space&pg=PA77#v=onepage&q=cyborg%20and%20space&f=false

https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http://web.mit.edu/digitalapollo/Documents/Chapter1/cyborgs.pdf&embedded=true&chrome=true

jmo May 20, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Oh, and there are plenty of monarchies around the world that fit the model for hundreds or thousands of year stability.

His Imperial Majesty the Emperor (of Japan) wishes to note that combining a monarchy and a religion can be even more effective.

Matt May 20, 2011 at 5:39 pm

cf. Octavia Butler’s dystopian near-future novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, wherein a religion, Earthseed, is created for precisely this purpose.

jk May 20, 2011 at 7:36 pm

Unless us meatbags can’t upload our conscious, we are trapped on this little blue ghetto.

meter May 20, 2011 at 8:09 pm

Why not contact that nutbag libertarian group headed by Milton Friedman’s crazy grandson – the one that has been trying to build a seafaring utopia? Same idea, different (and unsullied by socialists alike) frontier.

Lewis May 20, 2011 at 8:27 pm

It seems like one of the main problems, maintaining a constant leadership vision, will get progressively easier as the average healthy lifespan increases. Presumably, such a focus could be maintained over 2-3 generations.

SteveX (formerly Steve) May 20, 2011 at 11:53 pm

And an added benefit is that we can finally start exporting large religious organizations to other planets.

somethingblue May 21, 2011 at 12:26 am

“the Unification Church and Scientology (n.b. started by a science-fiction writer) have been on-going for over half a century.”

Uh huh. Get in line behind Nicholson Cleaners (“Nashville’s finest dry cleaner since 1938″), or Top O Hill Restaurant (“a Hwy 99E landmark since 1926″).

Not to mention Harman Ice and Cold Storage of Johnson City, TN (“The Clear Favorite since 1915″).

Nate May 21, 2011 at 12:50 am

Just wanted to let you know this little bit of awesome. I think the keyword “Mormon” in the post must have filtered into the Google, because clicking that video link launched into a commercial for the Mormon Church before getting its Sagan on.

Jon May 21, 2011 at 4:16 am

An obvious answer comes to mind – our constitution, of course. That’s served to give robust, mostly ept, dynamic, multicentury-long government. It’s also based on successful predecessors.

It works because it has robust checks and balances, limiting the dumb ideas, encourages innovation and has the least bad way of choosing leaders, and addresses problems as they arise. What more can you ask for?

Cyrus May 21, 2011 at 9:29 am

And yet, most other nations of the world (Haiti excepted) managed to abolish slavery without a complete breakdown of politics and a full-scale civil war.

Jon May 21, 2011 at 6:47 pm

OTOH, we were leaders in anticolonialism, decolonization, and antiracism.

And, our politics hardly broke on slavery. Yes, some resorted to violence, but our elected leadership also solved the problem, not just by conquering the rebels, but also by passing appropriate amendments to end the problem long term.

sohbet May 21, 2011 at 2:57 pm

The second way the virus works is by installing a keyboard logger

Michael Caton May 22, 2011 at 4:36 pm

This is an interesting argument. I’ve long wondered about the Catholic church as an international corporation, especially starting in the age of discovery. But it’s not totally clear that the brand is backed by the same organization and sells the same product. Certainly the brand itself has shown to be durable, but the changes in the official doctrine of the organization, and the kinds of decisions and projects it undertakes, have changed dramatically over the centuries – compare the early church in ancient Rome to the medieval church to the age of discovery to today. Profoundly different organizations with different aims. You could make similar arguments for long-lived royal family’s, like Japan’s – is there really meaningful continuity between whatever “Japan” is now and what it was centuries ago because of that link? It’s an interesting question and trying ot figure out what meaningful continuity is would be quite relevant to this endeavor.

Adrian Ratnapala May 23, 2011 at 4:28 am

This is the narcissism of small differences. Of course the various Christianities have changed over the years, and yet (outside of a few fringe, weakling churches) those changes are small compared to the gulf between them and say Taoism or Hinduism. The biggest change in I can think of in the last 1500 years of Christianity is the rise of Mormonism, which isn’t really much of a change. On the other hand, Christian *societies* have changed enormously.

ende May 24, 2011 at 4:36 am

So… we need to create the Spacing Guild from Dune?!

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