Project Breakthrough Starshot: New Frontiers in Scientific Philanthropy

2016 A Space Odyssey

Project Breakthrough Starshot Zuckerberg Stephen Hawking Science Space NASAIf you were going to embark on the most expeditious and ambitious space exploration program ever, how would you build your A-team to get it done? Who would you pick to comprise your team if you were using light beams to propel gram-scale “nanocraft” to 20% the speed of light? And perhaps the biggest question: who is going to cough up the estimated $100 billion dollars this is going to cost? We should probably start with the most renowned physicist of our time, Dr. Stephen Hawking. Let’s add to the mix Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who’s pledged a $100 million dollar investment to kick off the most daring interstellar space expedition ever. The goal is for these nanocraft to reach Alpha Centauri, our closest star­­—about 4.22 light years away—within about 20 years of its launch. The nanocrafts (called starchips) will be rapidly light-propelled to the Alpha Centauri system and will then transmit images back to us of newly-discovered planets and scientific data concerning our closest star system. It seems that more and more bold and large-scale scientific projects are beginning as privatized ventures funded by the wealthy… the very, very wealthy. How do we feel about billionaires with big ideas privatizing science? It seems to be the start of a new scientific revolution; whether this revolution is happening for better or for worse, that doesn’t challenge the fact that this is happening, whether we want it to or not…


Sailing to the Stars

Solar Sail Project Breakthrough Starshot

Solar Sail

What makes this project so unique is that it relies completely on technology that either already exists or is poised to exist in the near future. The current issue with space travel and exploration is the limitation of jet propulsion­­—specifically, reaction mass. “All forms of propulsion, from simple rocket motors to complex solar-electric ion drives, rely on a reaction mass which is accelerated into a high-velocity jet by some exothermal or electromagnetic means.”1 Essentially, the rocket propulsion technology we currently use requires massive rockets, lots, and lots of fuel, and would still take us “tens or hundreds of millennia to reach our neighboring star system.”2

The solution? Sail there using light propulsion technology. The constructive interference achieved by numerous lasers fired from earth, converging onto a single point upon these iPhone-sized nanocrafts will, in theory, propel them up to 20% of the speed of light. At these speeds, it’s estimated a fly-by mission to Alpha Centauri would only take about 20 years. If this can be accomplished, it would most certainly be one of the most remarkable feats in human history.

Light Propulsion is Forward Thinking

Robert Forward Rocket Scientist

Dr. Robert Forward

In the 1970s, a physicist by the name of Robert Forward determined that powerful lasers reflecting off a solar “sail” could propel a spacecraft to one-tenth or more the speed of light.2 Despite the fact that light has no mass, it does have momentum. Therefore, when light bounces off a mirror, it actually exerts pressure on that mirror. This counterintuitive and more striking implication of the theory of relativity is exactly what project Breakthrough Starshot attempts to exploit.


In his 1984 paper, published in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets, Forward ambitiously describes the pushing of payloads across interstellar distances by the momentum of laser photons reflecting off a “solar sail” (large, lightweight reflective sails).3 Robert didn’t stop there, however. He also described how these “solar system-based lasers can provide the thrust necessary to bring the light-sails to a stop in the target system and then bring them back again.”3

Clearly, Dr. Forward was a very forward-thinking physicist of his time. Unfortunately, the technical limitations of the 1970s cut Forward’s research short and caused it to become all but forgotten about… until now.

Building the Dream Team

 “With light beams, light sails, and the lightest spacecraft ever built, we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation… Today, we commit to this next great leap into the cosmos. Because we are human, and our nature is to fly.”

—Famed Cosmologist Dr. Stephen Hawking, at Breakthrough Starshot Press Conference


Project Starshot Conference Hawking Yuri Milner Zuckerberg

Project Starshot Conference

When embarking on the most ambitious mission into interstellar space of all time, who do you pick to be on your team? Well, there are two simple qualities that one must look for when picking your lineup: Brains & Billions. You’re going to want the best and brightest minds this world has to offer. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that Dr. Hawking is the famed physicist leading the charge. You’re also going to need people who want to give these beautiful minds the billions of dollars necessary to make this happen, such as Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg and Russian Billionaire Yuri Milner. Yuri, named after Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into outer space, injected $100 million dollars into the project to kick it off. Such a generous donation in the name of science is starting to become somewhat of a popular trend among the ultra-wealthy. In fact, the practice has already been dubbed as “science philanthropy”. Big, billionaire players—Google’s Eric Schmidt, Intel’s Gordon Moore, and, of course, Microsoft’s Bill Gates—have all donated extraordinary sums of money to further science and research. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation alone has donated $10 billion dollars for global health, aggressively tackling extreme poverty, hunger, and diseases.4 In light of progressively increasing federal cutbacks and deficits in scientific funding, could this privatization of science be in everyone’s best interest?


More Money, More Problems?

Science FundingDue to the privatization of scientific funding, one serious drawback that emerges is the unequal distribution of funds to particular causes. Currently, an area exemplifying this disparity is the field of disease research. The following excerpt from a New York Times article, published in 2014 about the privatization of science, does a great job describing the situation:

“Historically, disease research has been particularly prone to unequal attention along racial and economic lines. A look at major initiatives suggests that the philanthropists’ war on disease risks widening that gap, as a number of the campaigns, driven by personal adversity, target illnesses that predominantly afflict white people—like cystic fibrosis, melanoma, and ovarian cancer.”4

While injecting billions of dollars of private funds into the research sphere seemingly widens such disparities, the alternative, fair, and equal distribution of federal funding is quite possibly an even poorer alternative. The reality of the situation is that the possibility of garnering federal funds, in the form of grants, to do basic science research is quickly fading. In a 2013 paper published by Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine, Dr. Marc Lavigne aptly stated the cold truth:

“Our basic science investment as a percentage of GDP is at its lowest in 50 years. NIH funding has been flat for a decade and has lost 20% of its purchasing power because of inflation. This has put enormous stress on our scientists who spend more time raising money than doing research, and are increasingly being driven from our shores in search of better funding.”5

As a formerly published scientist myself, I can safely say that in my experience, as well as those of my colleagues, the adage “publish or perish” has never held truer. In essence, if you’re not a principle investigator consistently bringing in RO1s (the most prestigious NIH grant an institution can be awarded), you have very little job security, tenure or not! RO1s are valuable to colleges and universities because of a million dollar grant for the principle investigator, for instance, results in a $400,000 check for that institution. RO1s have become increasingly more difficult to obtain as well. Where in the past a well-written proposal, sturdy research, and a great idea would be enough to win, today this is hardly the case. The budget cuts have caused the government to become increasingly selective, essentially placing their bets on safer projects that are much farther along the pipeline. Of course, to get that far, you generally need the funding to begin with. This chicken and the egg absurdity is becoming ever more pervading in scientific academia. So, if we as scientists can’t trust the federal funding system to give us the money, job security, and resources we need to perform vital research, who are we supposed to turn to?

Billionaires With a Heart of Gold?

BillionairesAll around the world today scientists are standing in front of their bathroom mirrors, mustering all their confidence and courage to pitch their research proposals to the ultra-wealthy. Practicing the perfect elevator pitch to woo investors is no longer an art reserved for the hopeful entrepreneur. With federal funding for science plummeting and scientific philanthropy on the rise, the need for science to be sexy—at least for the sake of eager scientists trying to win the money of the rich and powerful—has never been greater.

Indeed, Roberta Kwok, in her 2013 Nature Jobs paper entitled Communications: Two Minutes to Impress, discusses the ASCB’s (American Society for Cell Biology) inaugural Elevator Speech Contest, wherein scientists compete in packaging and presenting their proposals into an attractive two minute presentation.6 Should scientific proposals and the possibility of funding hinge upon showmanship and presentation? Do we really want our scientists to have to audition for grants like on Shark Tank? Clearly, this massive influx of private money into research raises some ethical concerns that are worthy of both consideration and discussion. Should a scientist be denied only because he or she cannot robustly condense their complex project into a couple short minutes? Are we now expected to juxtapose entrepreneurship and science to stay afloat? Do we need to fundamentally change who we are? Is this an ethical and unavoidable evolution that scientists everywhere must undergo to stay afloat and push farther into the unknown? While many of these questions remain unanswered and still up for debate, one thing is certain: things in science are changing… a lot.


Science is Evolving; Scientists Must, Too

data-scientistThe times are definitely changing, and so are the rules. The field of science and medicine is evolving and is being considerably shaped by people such as Bill Gates, Google’s Eric Schmidt, and Intel’s Gordon Moore.4 Today, Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner join the scientific philanthropy club by helping kick-start funding for project Breakthrough . To stay ahead, one must always evolve. For scientists today and tomorrow, this very well might mean having to perfect their enticing elevator pitch. And with federal funds fading fast, this radical new alternative may be exactly what the future of science needs. Whether the future of private science funding creates greater racial disparities in disease research or allows us to finally reach the stars, one thing is for certain: science is evolving, and our scientists must, too.

This article was authored by Gaurav Dubey, Biolitics Founder & Host
This article was edited by Dean Sangalis, Biolitics Editor in Chief





  1. McInnes, C. R. (2004). Solar sailing: Technology, dynamics and mission

     applications. New York: Singer-Praxis Books.


  1. Breakthrough starshot initiatives. Retrieved from


  1. Forward, R. L. (1984). Roundtrip interstellar travel using laser-pushed

lightsails. Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets, 21(2), 187-195.



  1. Broad, W. J. (2014, March 15). Billionaires with big ideas are privatizing

american science. New York Times. Retrieved from



  1. Tessier-Lavigne, M. (2013). In defense of basic science funding: Today’s

scientific discovery is tomorrow’s medical advance. Cold Spring Harbor

   Perspectives in Medicine, 3(6). doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a019554


  1. Kwok, R. (2013). Communication: Two minutes to impress. Nature, 494, 137-
  2. doi:10.1038/nj7435-137a


Further Reading:


The Economist. (2016, April 16). Starchip enterprise. The Economist. Retreived from



Resnik, D. B. (1999). Privatized biomedical research, public fears, and the hazards of

government regulation: Lessons from stem cell research. Health Care Analysis,

 7(3), 273-87. doi:10.1023/A:1009405027357







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