The Breakthrough project operates on a comparative shoestring. Millis is its only full-time employee and he relies on volunteers to help shape and focus the work. Most of the research has been carried out by a team of 19 people working on one of the five formal research projects.
Millis said he was particularly cautious about handing out the grants -- even those as small as $5,000 -- because any amount of funding could be seen as wasteful if the work is "essentially looking at garbage."
But don't confuse caution with reluctance. Millis has dreamed of reaching the stars since childhood, when tales of explorers filled his mind with adventure and inspiration. When the Apollo astronauts walked across the moon, Millis found his calling.
"My impression as a kid was that this was a big, grand challenge," Millis said. "It was a steady march to do something interesting and honorable: for a nation to conquer the frontiers, instead of conquering each other."
When he's not talking about the latest advances in space travel or reading about cutting-edge science, Millis, who lives in the Cleveland suburbs, finds time to catch the latest Hollywood action-adventure film with his wife and two daughters.
And, sometimes, Hollywood comes to him. Over the years, the project's reputation for investigating esoteric science has led many screenwriters to Millis' office seeking the latest out-there research they can then incorporate into their scripts.
"We call NASA all the time," said Andre Bormanis, a writer and informal science consultant for the most recent "Star Trek" spinoff, "Enterprise."
While developing the original TV series in the 1960s, creator Gene Roddenberry tapped scientists in his search for material to use in the show. "Gene insisted on maintaining some sort of scientific credibility," Bormanis said. "The question was the same then as now: What might be fun that we haven't seen on the show, that's real?"
Those long-lasting ties are now more crucial than ever for Millis. In late January, prior to the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy, NASA decided that the program's funding for the remainder of its fiscal 2003 will be cut. Funding is expected to be reviewed again in 2004. As NASA began tightening its belt, Millis partnered with the Cleveland-based Ohio Aerospace Institute to keep the mission going. Dubbed the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Consortium, the nonprofit research group is searching for donors to keep the futuristic research alive, said Curtis Smith, a senior program manager at the Ohio Aerospace Institute. Officials estimate the cost of keeping the consortium and its research running at $600,000 a year or more.
In the meantime, Millis will keep plugging away. "When I think back over everything we've done, everything we've tried to achieve, all I can ask is, 'Is this a good thing to be doing?'
"And the only answer is 'Yes.' "