[The following text is based partly on a story by Keay Davidson in the San Francisco Examiner dated August 11, 1997, and also quotes from web announcements of the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Workshop sponsored by NASA's Lewis Research Center. For further information, visit the "Warp Drive When?" web page at http://www.lerc.nasa.gov/Other_Groups/PAO/warp.htm and the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Workshop page at http://www.lerc.nasa.gov/WWW/PAO/html/warp/bppconf.htm]
Exotic schemes for traveling to nearby stars are being assessed by scientists and engineers as part of a low-profile, micro-budget NASA program dubbed Breakthrough Propulsion Physics.
More than 80 employees of NASA and space-related industries gathered August 12-14, 1997 at NASA's Lewis Research Center in Cleveland for an invitation-only opportunity to hear 14 leading theorists discuss ways to achieve interstellar flight.
"We don't even know if these things are physically possible," said the program's chief and sole full-time employee, aerospace engineer Marc Millis of NASA-Lewis. But, he added, "Progress is not made by conceding defeat."
According to the workshop's statement of purpose, posted on the web: "This workshop provides a forum for established physicists, government researchers and select innovators to jointly assess the prospects of emerging physics that may lead to creating propulsion breakthroughs -- the kind of breakthroughs that could revolutionize space flight and enable human voyages to other star systems. The goal of this workshop is to specify what research is required to begin seeking the propulsion breakthroughs and to foster collaborations amongst researchers. If the workshop successfully demonstrates that promising and affordable approaches exist, the program may receive funding to solicit and support research."
Millis, 37, believes one good reason to go to the stars is to find other planets suitable for human habitation. "Imagine if we could give citizens access to a whole other planet
Earth," he said.
The proposed technologies "are extremely long shots," cautions one enthusiast, John Cole. He is manager of space transportation research at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, which funds the program at Lewis.
"Theories of this type... usually wind up not leading anywhere," he said. "But if we don't look, we certainly will never find anything."
Recent research published in "credible, peer-reviewed literature" has made interstellar flight seem more feasible than it did decades ago, Millis said.
Current discussions of so-called warp drive -- a term familiar to any fan of Star Trek -- began with an idea proposed by astrophysicist Miguel Alcubierre at the University of Wales. He published a paper in 1994 in a little-known scientific journal called "Classical and Quantum Gravity" in which he proposed that faster-than-light travel would not necessarily violate the principles of Einstein's theory of relativity. Other physicists have since elaborated on Alcubierre's proposal.
A major question for space-flight theorists is how to acquire sufficient energy to achieve light-speed. It is clear that spacecraft which burn propellants, like the space shuttle, can never achieve even a small fraction of the speed necessary to reach other stars in a practical amount of time. Therefore, one of the main topics of the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics workshop was propulsion without on-board propellant.
It is now believed that vast amounts of energy might be extracted directly from space. This energy derives from "zero-point fluctuations of the quantum vaccum" (ZPF). Though it sounds like pure fantasy, many theoretical physicists are convinced not only that it exists but that it might be tapped using some kind of process not yet understood.
If ZPF can be tapped, almost unlimited amounts of essentially "free energy" would become available. This would have direct applications to interstellar travel, and might also provide a source of abundant clean energy for terrestrial civilization.
Several leading theorists on zero-point energy participated in the conference, including H.E. Puthoff, Bernhard Haisch and Alfonso Rueda.
Not so long ago, even the idea of such an inquiry would have been rejected out of hand. But the times, and public attitudes, are changing.
"People, particularly young people, are sort of rejecting the claustrophobic position that we are locked in this solar system without any chance at all of going to others," said Whitt Brantley, chief of the advanced concepts office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
Still, not everyone at NASA is enthused by these new inquiries. Within the space agency, Cole said, "There are those that believe we are about to get NASA embarrassed with some ideas that can't possibly be achieved."
On the other hand, "There are others that are just delighted that NASA is finally open-minded enough, and (has) enough courage -- and encouragement from the administrator (Daniel Goldin) -- to pursue these things," Cole added.
Original file name: CNI - Breakthru Prop Phys
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