We have officially begun our first mission to travel to distant galaxies ... slowly. It's been about 10 months since DARPA announced it had awarded seed funding to form an independent, non-governmental organization with the goal of pursuing human interstellar space flight within the next 100 years. Leaders from this "100 Year Starship" took to the stage recently at the South By Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, to talk a bit more about what it means to pursue such a "grand challenge."

Former NASA astronaut Dr. Mae C. Jemison told the audience that the task at hand for 100 Year Starship is to figure out how to make the necessary capabilities available. Coming up with an answer is no small feat, especially considering that the Voyager craft is just now exploring the edge of our solar system after more than three decades in space. Traveling at Voyager speed, Jemison pointed out it would take 70,000 years to reach the next closest star to ours.

Inventing a way for humans to make it to other stars or planets without decomposing on the way there requires much more speed and energy than contemporary spacecraft can provide, and "when we are able to create it, we also solve our energy problems (on Earth)," Jemison told the crowd.

Tackling such massive challenges of innovation and planning such a journey will also be beneficial for the way that humans of all backgrounds interact with each other, Jemison added.

(left to right) Moderator Benjamin Palmer, Jemison, Tarter, Burton

"We'll have to learn to cooperate more and compete less," concurred actor LeVar Burton, who is perhaps best known for his work on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Jemison said that part of the challenge will come in educating the public to a high enough level of scientific literacy to able to support and contribute to such a project that will require us "to think more broadly and ask the right questions."

Unique Challenges

Another panelist, Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute, noted that NASA and others are already "on the verge of being able to find Earth 2.0." (See my previous article from SXSW on NASA's search for life using the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope.) Tarter likened the 100 Year Starship project to other grand challenges that humanity has embarked upon in recent memory, like the campaign for universal literacy or mapping the human genome. But she noted that deep space exploration poses some particularly unique, head-scratching challenges.

"We don't yet know what could support life that we don't yet know," Tarter said. "We could even have to modify ourselves biologically to make the trip."

There is also the possibility that even pursuing the amount of energy necessary to make such a journey carries certain risks with it. For example, finding a way to harness zero-point energy (ZPE) – the possibility of which is a matter of some controversy – could be the answer to fueling interstellar travel, but Tarter cautioned that an accident involving ZPE could also destroy the top layer of the Earth.

Tarter said that regardless of how it is accomplished, the key to building a 100 Year Starship will be to first build support for the cause around the world. Jemison pointed out that Tarter herself actually holds a certain amount of notoriety in the popular culture as the inspiration for Jodie Foster's character in the Hollywood adaptation of Carl Sagan's "Contact."

Tarter pointed out that the ending of that film had been left open for a sequel, and that perhaps the time is right for a "Contact 2" film to "tell the (100 Year Starship) story to the world."

100 Year Starship will be holding its third annual public symposium in Houston September 19 - 22. You can listen to audio of the SXSW panel below: