“Interstellar Hackathon” To Chart Our Path To The Stars

Discovery News, July 27, 2015.

In the Oscar-winning film, “The Social Network” (2010), there’s a famous scene in which a raucous party is in progress in the Harvard dorm room of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg.) A group of young men are seated around a table.

Without taking their eyes off their laptops or their fingers off the keyboard, they knock back shots of a stiffener. They have a limited time in which to crack a code. Students cheer them on noisily. In the end, the winner lands an internship at a start-up called Facebook.

What Zuckerberg is hosting is a small-scale “hackathon”—for five persons.

“Hackathon,” a portmanteau of “marathon” and “hacking,” conjures a vision of faceless cyberpunks, breaching a secure system, with the sinister goal of stealing confidential data. It might also remind one of someone like David Lightman (Matthew Broderick), the brilliant high-schooler in “WarGames” (1983), who accidentally breaks into a military supercomputer while gaming.

Not anymore.

The word has attached itself to a very different meaning in our present time. It’s become a byword for a caffeine-fueled creative carnival, where entrepreneurs of various stripes get together, and engage in problem-solving at a feverish pace to come up with a piece of new software, a new device, a new business, even a new industry. It’s also a fertile ground for recruiting talent, for networking, and in some cases, going home with prize money.

What’s more, the concept has spread outside the world of silicon-based technology start-ups. Icarus Interstellar—a space non-profit, dedicated to starship research—is staging its next “Starship Congress” in the form of a hackathon.

Beginning on September 4, at 9:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m., and continuing on the next day, Drexel University’s Philadelphia campus will crackle with the collective energy of a galaxy (pun, please) of deep-space mavens, futurists, technologists, engineers, and enthusiasts, alike—all converging to brainstorm.

Over the course of the weekend convention, a number of teams will dive into the topic of interstellar space, and tackle its daunting challenges as if they were taking on a new video game.

Only the players are notables from fields as far-ranging as archaeology to aerospace engineering to urban planning to science-fiction. And they’re not in it for a six-figure score, but for a holistic understanding of what it’d take to invest in a future, living off-Earth.

The event (think: Comic-Con meets an astronomy academic conference) aims to grapple with, what may seem to most, an outrageous endeavor—sending humankind to our nearest stellar neighbor, located some four light-years away (for perspective: one light-year is about six trillion miles) by the year, 2100. Sure, in a sense, it’s premature to dream of going beyond our solar system. Men haven’t been able to return to the Moon or colonize Mars.

But every story of human exploration has begun somewhere. The West would still not have known of the existence of China had the Venetian merchant, Marco Polo, not set off on an epic voyage, sailing through the Levant, trekking over the craggy Pamirs and across the hot sands of the Gobi into the Mongol empire and jotting down everything that he saw along the way.

After the talks, the speakers will break up into batches, mingle with the students, and geek out some more: consult theorems; scribble equations; make technical doodles; compile and analyze spreadsheets; jot down reflections on Moleskins. Together, they’ll scrutinize the prospects of being a star-faring civilization from myriad angles, both in the sciences as well as the arts.

Some of the questions they’ll attempt to answer are: how would we build a propulsion system for a vessel, competent enough to fly us beyond the Sun’s domain? What are the materials it’d be made from? What would such a space liner look like? If we did emigrate, how would we stay in touch with our Earthy home? Would our progeny be able to talk or write to us while en route to a new world? How many colonists would it need to set up shop elsewhere?

By closing time, of course, no one expects to build a full-fledged starship, ready to be clamored into, and zoom off. Icarus Interstellar’s goal is to set the ball in motion in that direction. No one will be forced to gulp down the “red pill.” But when the party’s over, and everyone walks out the door, it’s hoped that the doors of their perception would’ve opened a crack wider. And we’d have taken a small step towards the dawn of an “Interstellar Age.”

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