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Context (New York Times),

Alpha Centauri or bust. The government agency that helped invent the Internet now wants to do the same for travel to the stars. ...

Does bust here mean

Dictionary.com: 8. failure

Is the author saying that either the government agency is going to pull this off (sending humans to Alpha Centauri, to the stars) or this is just totally a failure?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

Bust in this context typically means I/We will collapse from the effort. So it's almost like saying:

We will get to Alpha Centauri or die trying.

source: TFD

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I've always been a bit perplexed by the related shit or bust (meaning all or nothing) where both alternatives seem to imply impending failure. – FumbleFingers Aug 23 '11 at 16:17
Note that in the heavily capitalist society of the USA, "going broke" and "die trying" aren't really all that different. – T.E.D. Aug 23 '11 at 17:42

Once committed there is no turning back.

In the days of westward colonization families would load everything they owned into wagons and head west with the intent of carving out a living and making their fortune.

The phrase dates back to the California gold rush of 1849. (It may go back further than that). Check out page 240 of the History of California Vol.3 by Theodore Hittell:

The large canvas-covered wagons were called "prairie schooners", and many of them carried mottoes such as "California or bust," "No return tickets by this line," or something equally as expressive but unrefined.

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