This Is Probably a Job for Chris Borgen, Space Lawyer

by Kenneth Anderson

DARPA will be making a grant award this fall to some organization to address interstellar space flight:

In what is perhaps the ultimate startup opportunity, Darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, plans to award some lucky, ambitious and star-struck organization roughly $500,000 in seed money to begin studying what it would take — organizationally, technically, sociologically and ethically — to send humans to another star, a challenge of such magnitude that the study alone could take a hundred years.

The awarding of that grant, on Nov. 11 — 11/11/11 — is planned as the culmination of a yearlong Darpa-NASA effort called the 100-Year Starship Study, which started quietly last winter and will include a three-day public symposium in Orlando, Fla., on Sept. 30 on the whys and wherefores of interstellar travel.

The reason I am calling out OJ’s own space law expert for this assignment is that the article goes on to note that the agenda for the conference “ranges far beyond rocket technology to include such topics as legal, social and economic considerations of interstellar migration.”

So.  Toward the end of Robert Heinlein’s young people’s classic 1950s sci-fi novel, Have Space Suit, Will Travel (a title imposed by his publisher and which forever embarrassed him), the young hero, Kit, meets with the MIT physicist father of his interstellar sidekick, PeeWee – and the UN Secretary-General, who understandably wants to learn about the aliens that, unbeknownst to anyone, nearly destroyed Earth.  Kit expresses a desire to study engineering; the SG tells him he should consider a joint degree in law because, as the SG says, the law and lawyers go anywhere humanity goes.  Good to see that DARPA recognizes that.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks, Ken, for elevating me to “space law expert.”  “Sci-fi fanboy who happens to be an international lawyer” is more accurate.  But, anyway, yeah… I have been following this, actually.

    Besides the NY Times article, anyone interested can go to the 100 Year Starship Study website ( )and see the agenda of the public conference that is being held at the end of September as well as a list of papers being presented. The papers themselves are unfortunately not on the site (as of this writing, at least). But, if you want, you can go to the conference in Orlando! 

    As for legal issues, the topic that seems immediately relevant (keeping in mind that this is essentially a feasibility study) is how do you organize for such a a long-term investment?  Any attempt to loft something to a nearby star would be the biggest and most expensive engineering project ever undertaken.  (The study phase alone is expected to last a hundred years.) A few of the papers are actually on different investment-financing structures. That’s where we start. Maybe toss in some international organization design for the states interested in entering into a research and development consortium to actually build the thing.

    Financing and management.  No bucks, no Buck Rogers.

    It bears reiteration what DARPA is actually doing here. It is planting seed money that will be used to fund a study, that itself is expected to run perhaps a century. (The century marker is used symbolically–it was about a hundred years between Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” and Apollo 11.)  It is hoped that at the end of that 100 years, humanity may have some ideas about how to actually send a probe to another star.

    In any case, I applaud an attempt by a governmental institution to think about how to fund basic research and development over the very long term.  A hundred years for a study is, well, pretty much unheard-of. In a recent TED conference, Constance Adams, an architect whose firm designs spacecraft for NASA, argued that a fundamental question facing the United States in this era of debt gridlock and the end of the shuttle is “how does a democracy conduct great projects?” This is an issue that goes beyond space policy and affects all aspects of scientific, technological, and infrastructure development in the U.S.  Her talk is here:

    As one attempt to answer that question, which is so important, I applaud this initiative.

    And, inasmuch as it is actually about interstellar travel, the fanboy in me is excited, too, even though I’ll be long gone before the study is even completed.

    For now, I’d be happy if we could just get someone into low earth orbit without hitching a ride on a Soyuz.

  2. the law and lawyers go anywhere humanity goes

    Kind of like the members of the order Blattodea.

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