In one room, scientists debated whether the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer will help find a way to bend the space-time continuum and make interstellar travel feasible within a lifetime. In another, they estimated how many pairs of underpants an astronaut would need to pack for the trip. Later, a paper was presented on Space Propulsion Under the Changing Density Field Model, and Lt Uhura sang the theme from Star Trek.

Otherworldly in more ways than one, this was the 100 Year Starship symposium, a conference backed by Nasa and the Pentagon at the weekend that landed an eclectic mix of the eminent, the famous and the curious in Texas. It launched a mission that is nothing less than spaceflight's holy grail: make it possible for humans to travel to another star system within a century.

Not that anyone was able to proclaim, after four days of discussions and dozens of presentations on every conceivable related angle, that "Houston, we have a solution". True, there are more than 5,200 weeks until the project's deadline. But even that timeframe appears fleeting given the vast scientific, technical, political and ethical challenges.

The US defence department's key research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, gave $500,000 to seed-fund 100YSS. En route to distant planets, 100YSS hopes to foster the development of technologies with practical earthly uses, in the same way that space exploration led to GPS navigation and advances in osteoporosis treatment.

More dramatically, the path towards interstellar travel may boost the search for extraterrestrials and ultimately ensure humanity's survival. "[Astronomers are] predicting statistically that there's something like 200 billion planets in the Milky Way," professor David Alexander, of the Rice Space Institute, said.

"The idea of finding life of some description on another planet is not as far-fetched as it might appear."

Before that, some positive publicity would help make space sexy again at a period when Nasa is hobbled by budget cuts and accused by critics of a lack of ambition. Dotcom billionaires such as Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, are filling the void with commercial galactic ventures.

"We would be on the moon right now if we had kept the public involved," said Dr Mae Jemison, chair of the symposium and the first African American woman in space. "We left a lot of folks out and that was a big issue. With 100 Year Starship we're making sure we include people."

Nasa scientists said this month that their Voyager 1 probe is set to become the first spacecraft to leave the solar system. It has traveled over 11bn miles in 35 years at 38,000mph.

This seems swift, until you consider that the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is about 4.2 light years away from Earth: more than 24tn miles. It would take Voyager roughly 75,000 years to get there. So a faster propulsion method, probably laser or nuclear, needs to be developed before volunteers could be sought for what would likely be the trip of not one, but several lifetimes.

"The science exists. The engineering hasn't quite caught up with the science but work is ongoing," said Dr Richard Obousy, of Icarus Interstellar, a theoretical project to design an unmanned fusion-powered spacecraft.

If the event in a downtown Houston hotel occasionally felt like a Comic-Con for space geeks, it was because much of the serious science is heavily influenced by Star Trek. Hollywood stars shine brightly in space. Nichelle Nichols – 79 years old but feisty as an Andorian – told rapt guests that her role as Uhura led to Nasa recruiting her to increase the number of female and minority astronauts.

In 2004, the US air force examined whether it might be feasible to teleport soldiers through wormholes. (Answer: no.) These were among the more exotic topics discussed in Houston. Wormholes could offer shortcuts through space. On the downside, they might destroy Earth.

Marc Cohen, a space architect, kept his feet on terra firma. "Just the test flight, there's 50-80 years right there," he said. "I was prepared for people who push or bend the laws of physics, and that's OK. Then there are people who are completely unrealistic and flaky. And there are people who can make interstellar travel boring."

A Nasa scientist, Dr Harold White, really is conducting warp field analysis. The theory is that a craft travels in its own "bubble" as the space behind it expands and the area in front shrinks: going faster than light by moving space itself, rather than the ship. Dr White said on Friday that he has fine-tuned the mathematics so that sending a real-life Enterprise off on a warp-speed adventure would require far less energy than previously imagined.

LeVar Burton – better known as Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation – is on the 100YSS advisory board. He strode the conference halls in steel-tipped boots and carried a tablet computer disguised as an antique book. He expressed total confidence that the initiative will triumph.

"It's not rocket science," he said, contentiously. "I think it's a done deal. Of course it is. It's the same reason we climb mountains, dive to the depths of the ocean. Everyone has had an experience of looking up into the night sky and wondering. So we can all feel a part of this effort, because we all have an inner desire to know what's out there."

In Star Trek, an earthling invents a warp drive in 2063. "I'm hard pressed to identify in this moment something that we got blatantly wrong," Burton mused. "I hope what [the show] got right was how we will respond when we encounter. That's the key."

Encounter … aliens? "Oh, yeah. We are clearly not ready yet. I frame it as: we need to grow up, and now. We have thousands of years of human history that indicate that the way we've done it heretofore is not getting it done. It's not. It's just not. This methodology of competition at the cost of all else sucks. Let's try something else."

If Burton is right, the 100YSS was a good omen. Not for its abstruse theories and squiggly equations or its muzzy jumble of fiction and fact. But because passionate people gathered in an adult spirit of co-operation and with a childlike conviction that the future is limitless. Let's hope they take enough boxer shorts along for the ride. © Guardian News and Media 2012