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STYLE & CULTURE

Science by Scotty

March 12, 2003|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

Capt. Kirk clenches his jaw and barks out the command for warp speed. The stars whoosh past as the crew shoots through space faster than the speed of light. Han Solo leaves Imperial Storm Troopers in his star dust with a simple shift to hyperdrive ... when it works.

While interstellar travel aboard fictional starships like "Star Trek's" Enterprise and "Star Wars' " Millennium Falcon has crews skipping smoothly between galaxies in the blink of an eye, don't expect to see American astronauts beaming down to planets hither and yon anytime soon.

NASA's just not there yet. To explore deep space, the agency would need to find a way to travel at nearly the speed of light and discover a mode of energy that could be used on board a vehicle to generate power.

That's how NASA aerospace engineer Marc G. Millis sees it, anyway. And he should know. He is boldly going where no scientist has gone before, heading a team of more than a dozen fellow researchers who try to turn the fantasy of "Star Trek" and other science fiction into practical reality for NASA space explorers.

"This is about emerging science and pushing the boundaries but in a realistic way," said Millis. "We're not asking anyone to develop a warp drive."

The Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project was established with $1.7 million in funding at NASA's John H. Glenn Research Center in Cleveland in 1996 to study such advances. One of his first goals was to tap academic and government researchers to see whether research had advanced enough even to begin tackling such questions as interstellar space travel. After much debate, the experts agreed that the tools were in place to start work and Millis put out the call to the scientific community to contribute ideas for research.

In the early years, Millis received about 60 formal proposals annually for researching futuristic technologies. In 2000, the number of letters from researchers pitching serious ideas grew to more than 300.

Millis narrowed the offerings to five projects suggested by scientists with impeccable credentials.

"Millis' philosophy was that he wanted to deal with fringe physics," said Harry Ringermacher, a physicist with General Electric who received a grant from the project. " 'Fringe' doesn't mean crackpot. It means nonmainstream physics. The point was to get really new concepts out there."

Ringermacher and two colleagues were testing a theory linking electromagnetism with space-time shifts. The experiment studied an idea that electromagnetism, if introduced and manipulated in the continuum of space and time, could create a slight physical shift. That shift could have implications for seeking a new means to propel through space.

Another Breakthrough-funded project, conducted by Glen A. Robertson and Ron R. Litchford at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., tested a controversial decade-old theory that gravity can be manipulated using magnetized superconductors. The scientists glumly concluded that the results were "inconclusive," according to a research paper they presented in 2001.

"Using current rocket technology, a trip to the next star would easily consume the mass-energy equivalent of a planet in order to arrive within a reasonable lifetime with reasonable hardware and expendables for the journey," the authors wrote. "Technologies like nuclear fission and fusion offer some hope, but still will not support the 'Star Trek' vision of space exploration."

The Breakthrough project has also funded work on quantum tunneling -- an apparent faster-than-light phenomenon -- and on experiments dealing with changing the inertial mass of a future spacecraft.

None has shown a positive result -- yet.

"These things can't be answered overnight," Ringermacher said. "You need time, and yet there's pressure to finish the experiment, because you know that the money could run out."

To skeptics, the Breakthrough endeavor is sheer silliness.

"It always struck me as nonsense," said Lawrence M. Krauss, chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "There's a lot of thinking-outside-the-box that NASA funds."

Krauss remembered being shocked by the amount of "Star Trek" paraphernalia at a 1997 gathering of scientists sponsored by the project. "I walked into the room and there had to be 50 various models of the U.S.S. Enterprise and posters from the show everywhere," Krauss said. "I really began to question the seriousness of the research."

Though $1.7 million might buy a lot of red Star Fleet ensign uniforms, it's small change for a government agency with an annual budget of $15 billion. NASA's Mars Pathfinder lander cost $171 million to build, including $25 million for the picture-snapping micro-rover. Sending a space shuttle into orbit costs at least $450 million per launch.

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