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The 2013 Starship Century Symposium

by John G. Cramer

Alternate View Column AV-170

Keywords: 100-year, starship, symposium, SF, writers, physicists, book, publication
Published in the December-2013 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine;
This column was written and submitted 6/6/2013 and is copyrighted ©2013 by John G. Cramer.
All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced in any form without
the explicit permission of the author.


This column is about the Starship Century Symposium (SCS), held on May 21 and 22, 2013 at the new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at the University of California San Diego, an event centered on implementing interstellar exploration and travel in the next 100 years.  The SCS was organized by the brothers Gregory and James Benford to signal the release of a new book Starship Century, Toward the Grandest Horizon, which they edited.  However, before I describe the Starship Century Symposium and book, I want to discuss the background that led up to the Symposium.

In 2011 David Neyland of DARPA and Pete Worden of NASA's Ames Research Center decided to invest a modest amount of federal funds as seed money in an initiative that would encourage developments that could take humanity to the stars in the next 100 years.  After receiving advice of a preceding workshop, they organized the 100 Year Starship Symposium, held in Orlando , Florida from September 30 to October 2, 2011.  It was well publicized with free registration, and it attracted a large participation.   I was invited to chair the session on “Exotic Science” at the Symposium.

The DARPA/NASA initiative envisioned the creation of a private foundation that would raise funds, attract the interest of businesses, and provide continuity over the coming century to develop the will and the technology to go to the stars.  In the words of their initial press release, "the 100-Year Starship study will examine the business model needed to develop and mature a technology portfolio enabling long-distance manned space flight a century from now. This goal will require sustained investments of intellectual and financial capital from a variety of sources."

Startup funds of $500,000 was set aside for the project, and a proposal competition was held, with the winner to receive that funding to form a foundation.  Several organizations already existed that were aimed at the development of interstellar travel, including the British Interplanetary Society (established 1933; website, the Tau Zero Foundation (2004; website, and Icarus Interstellar (2011; website   The ultimate winner of the DARPA/NASA competition and funding was the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence (1994), which has now formed the new 100 Year Starship (or 100YSS) organization and is arranging annual gatherings in Houston that are intended as follow-ons to the Orlando Symposium.  As of this writing in June, 2013, Icarus Interstellar, which originally had partnered with 100YSS, has gone its own way and is organizing its own conferences on interstellar travel, the latest of which is the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress, to be held in Dallas on August 15-18, 2013.

At the conclusion of the 2011 Orlando 100 Year Starship Symposium, James and Gregory Benford announced that they planned a book based on the Symposium, which would be in part technical papers and in part hard science fiction stories based on the project.  Any profits generated by the sale of the book would go to the starship project. The resulting book, entitled Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon, will be officially published in August, 2013, and a pre-publication edition was made available at the Starship Century Symposium.  The book includes science fact articles by Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson, Martin Rees, Paul Davies, Robert Zubrin, Peter Schwartz, Geoffery Landis, Ian Crawford, James Benford, Adam Crowl, and John Cramer.  In particular, I wrote the article entitled "Exotic Technologies for Interstellar Travel", which discussed space drives, warp drives, and wormholes.  The Starship Century book also included science fiction stories by Neal Stephenson, Gregory Benford, Stephen Baxter, Allen Steele, Joe Haldeman, David Brim, Nancy Kress, and Richard Lovett.

The Starship Century Symposium followed the rough outlines of the book and included some very interesting talks.  There was a live video webcast of the talks while the Symposium was in progress, and by mid-June the site ( has promised to provide a video archive of the 45 minute talks given at the Symposium, so that interested viewers can stream them to their computers and TVs.

Now let me describe the Symposium.  In the Tuesday Morning Session, futurist Peter Schwartz reviewed the political and sociological aspects of various scenarios that might lead to interstellar exploration and travel, some inspiring and others rather ugly.  Freeman Dyson described what might be called an "organic" approach to interstellar travel and exploration, a vision involving the genetic-engineered development of warm-blooded plants that could thrive in the low-light vacuum beyond Neptune in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud.  Such plants would establish extra-solar environments in which humans could live, creating extra-solar outposts and providing stepping stones to nearby star systems (with or without habitable planets).  Robert Zubrin, President of Pioneer Astronautics and the founder and President of the Mars Society, presented the case against the Mathusian idea that population increase will inevitably devastate our planet.  He showed strong positive correlations between population and innovation.  Zubrin's basic premise is that population growth is good, because among the growing masses there will inevitably be brains that will produce innovations that will far outweigh the burden of more mouths to feed.

The last talk of the morning was by a group led by Neal Stephenson, noted SF author.  They presented a "thinking big" construction project, a 20 kilometer high tower from which space vehicles could be launched and that might provide a springboard for innovation and inspiration.  The formidable engineering problems of material strength and resistance to wind forces, and the sociological problems of generating support and funding for the project were addressed by members of his team.

In the Tuesday Afternoon Session, Patti Grace Smith, former Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation for the Federal Aviation Administration described the potential role of government in general and the FAA in particular in space development.  Dr. Geoffery Landis of the NASA Glenn Research Center gave a comprehensive review of the technology of nuclear propulsion and its potential role in interstellar travel. Chris Lewicki, former JPL mission leader and now President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources, Inc., discussed his corporate plan for asteroid mining and space development.  The Tuesday Afternoon Session concluded with Peter Schwartz moderating a panel consisting of Freeman Dyson, Neal Stephenson, Allen Steele, and Geoffery Landis  discussing The Future of New Space.  Perhaps the most striking comment from the panel was made by Freeman Dyson, one of the founders of quantum electrodynamics.  Stepenson had commented on the need for breakthroughs and "big ideas" in physics and elsewhere.  Dyson responded by observing that the physics "big names" that preceded his generation of physicists were the ones with the big ideas, ready to replace the existing formalism and conservation laws with something new, while the "young turks" of his generation took the more conservative path of working with the existing formalism and conceptual framework and finding ways to make it work.

In the Wednesday Morning Session, Adam Crowl, Icarus Interstellar Board Member, Icarus Core Designer, and Module Leader of Primary Propulsion, gave a nice review of the proposed designs for space vehicles with the potential for interstellar travel, including photon rockets, pulsed nuclear propulsion, deuterium-fueled fusion rockets, and antimatter drives.  Jim Benford, co-editor of the Starship Century book and President of Microwave Sciences, Inc., presented concepts involving light sails driving starships by reflecting laser light or microwaves.  He showed a movie of a conical carbon-fiber reflector levitated by a beam of microwaves and made to spin from the angular momentum of incident circularly-polarized microwaves.  I gave the next talk, which was based on my May-2012 AV Column " Shooting Wormholes to the Stars".  My basic premise was that if one can create a microscopic wormhole mouth and give it the charge-to-mass ratio of a proton, it can be accelerated to near light-speed with existing accelerator technology, e.g., the LHC.  Then because of relativistic time dilation, as viewed through the wormhole itself, the tiny "wormhole starship" will reach the stars in a matter of days or weeks, instead of the decades or centuries required by alternative technologies.  The final talk of the morning was given by astronomer Ian Crawford, Professor of Planetary Science and Astrobiology at Birkbeck College , University of London .  He discussed the evidence for extra-solar planets and the prospects for finding an earth-like planet among the stars that are our nearest neighbors.  Briefly, he was optimistic that earth-like planets will be fairly common.  It was noted, however, that many such planets orbiting in the "habitable zones" of dimmer stars will be tide-locked and not very earth-like.

In the Wednesday Afternoon Session, Paul Davies, wearing his astrobiologist hat, discussed the compatibility of life originating on Earth with the life we may find on planets of other stars systems.  His conclusion was that extra-solar life is likely to be biologically very different in its structure, and we can expect massive incompatibilities.  Then came a break with the stream of hard-science talks that had occupied most of the Symposium.  Artist Jon Lomberg described a garden he had designed and created in Hawaii , which is an accurate scale model of our Milky Way Galaxy, constructed with plant species that roughly emulate the galaxy's star cluster structure.  The Solar System is just a golden earring stud on the leaf of one of the plants.  Then came the first of two panel discussions, "Getting to the Stars" moderated by Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute with panelists Ian Crawford, Robert Zubrin, Geoffery Landis, Paul Davies, and Adam Crowl.  The moderator asked a series of targeted questions and the panelists gave a spectrum of responses.  The consensus, if there was one, was that interstellar missions, if they come in the next century, will probably need some combination of nuclear propulsion, light sails driven by gigantic space-based lasers, and vast quantities of money.  The concluding panel of SF writers was "Envisioning the Starship Era", with panelists Joe Haldeman, Gregory Benford, David Brin, Larry Niven, Vernor Vinge, and Jon Lomberg.  The Symposium ended with concluding remarks by the Brothers Benford and by Sheldon Brown, Director of the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, which had hosted the Symposium.  At the conclusion of the Symposium, James Benford announced that the proceeds of the Starship Century book would be donated to Icarus Interstellar.

Overall, this was one of the best conferences it has been my privilege to attend.  The talks were all excellent, perhaps because many of them were summaries of the written material in the Starship Century book and had been carefully thought out well in advance of the Symposium.  As I said above, there are plans to make the talks from the Symposium available as streaming videos from the Starship Century site ( .  I recommend them for your viewing pleasure and enlightenment.

The Starship Century book is available at for purchase at .

SF Novels by John Cramer:  my two hard SF novels, Twistor and Einstein's Bridge, are newly released as eBooks and are available at : .

AV Columns Online: Electronic reprints of about 170 "The Alternate View" columns by John G. Cramer, previously published in Analog , are available online at:

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