Although NASA has ended its space shuttle program and the latest mission beyond our planet involved a robotic Mars rover, rather than astronauts, a group of scientists and dreamers is working out how to send humans to the distant stars.
The initiative, called 100 Year Starship, has initial funding from the U.S. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It's probing what would be required to take a ship and crew beyond our solar system within the next century.
The scope of the project goes far beyond space travel technology and engineering. Scientists are examining everything from growing food in outer space, to how to keep law and order on a ship that may never be able to return to Earth, said Dr. Mae Jemison, who is leading the initiative.
"All of those things that we need to learn how to do to get to another star successfully with humans are all the things that we really need to know to live successfully here on Earth," said Dr. Jemison, a retired astronaut and physician, in an interview that aired on CBC's Quirks and Quarks on Oct. 13.
The biggest hurdle isn't technological, said Dr. Jemison. It will be keeping people interested and committed to the long-term mission of going where no one has gone before.
"It's the most difficult challenge, and in some ways it can be the easiest challenge because all of us have looked up at the stars," she said. "We've all wondered about them."
Scientists put forward potential ideas and research papers at the 100 Year Starship symposium in Houston, Tx., last month, on topics including what clothing will hold up in another stellar environment and how a warp drive — yes, the technology that propels the Starship Enterprise in the Trek Universe — could be turned into reality.
Using existing rockets, at maximum speed, it would take roughly 100,000 years to reach the nearest star, said Dr. Harold "Sonny" White, physicist in the Eagleworks Advanced Propulsion Physics Laboratory at the NASA in Houston.
In 1994, Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed Warp Drive, which involved a football-shaped spaceship with a donut-shaped ring floating around it. This ring mechanism around the spaceship would "warp" space-time around the ship, allowing it to move at apparent speeds faster than the speed of light.
But Dr. Alcubierre's original 1994 proposal required a "Jupiter-sized" amount of exotic mass or energy to power the ring to warp space-time around the ship, Dr. White said.
Dr. White's research tweaked the original Warp Drive design, changing the shape and velocity of the field, and potentially reducing the amount of energy required.
"We might have moved this from the realm of totally impractical to maybe it's plausible," he said in an interview with Quirks and Quarks that aired earlier this week.
Next, researchers must prove the theory in the lab at a very small scale — a tiny, but important step for the "long haul", Dr. White said.
"Whether its 20 years or 100 years, a couple hundred years, I think it's still important to do the work," he said. "Because we have to do to the work to get us ready for the next step."
The mission of 100 Year Starship is open-ended, said Dr. Jemison. It's not limited to sending a ship with humans on board as soon as possible, but to get the knowledge and technology ready for star-bound travel.
"The great thing is that every day were turning science fiction into science fact," she said.
"We've turned the idea of communications satellites proposed by Arthur C. Clarke into everyday things. The tablets that were used on Star Trek are [part of] everyday life, school students have them. We should not think that that's a stumbling block."