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Science Project of a Lifetime

COLUMN ONE

A NASA-funded space probe tackles Einstein's relativity theory. But after four decades and $700 million, the craft has yet to launch.

February 24, 2004|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

PALO ALTO — In 1962, Francis Everitt, a restless young physics researcher from England, signed up at Stanford University for what he thought would be a "few years of entertaining work" on a space project.

The goal was to put a satellite in orbit 400 miles above Earth to validate or disprove, once and for all, Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity.

Four decades and $700 million later, Everitt is still working on Gravity Probe B.

In the meantime, NASA has landed a man on the moon, built the international space station and sent probes to Mars. Two of the three Stanford professors who came up with the idea for the gravity probe while skinny-dipping at the campus pool in 1959 have died.

"They were telling me about this far-out idea, and I thought I would work on it for a few years before going back to England," said Everitt, now 69 and an Einstein look-alike with his mustache and graying, frizzy hair. "I didn't realize how far out it was going to be."

Gravity Probe B, about the size of a van, was originally expected to lift off into space in 1975 at a cost of about $35 million. NASA has pulled the plug on the project seven times over the years. Each time, it was resurrected, thanks to Everitt's unrelenting lobbying of Congress.

More than 400 physicists, 2,100 engineers and countless Stanford students have worked on the project. Nearly 100 professors earned their doctorates developing, evaluating, analyzing and building it. Research papers on the probe fill entire sections of Stanford's engineering and physics libraries.

Stanford even built a three-story building for the project, the only facility on campus dedicated to a single mission. Today, about 55 full-time staffers work on the probe, with more than 100 students, visiting scholars and engineers involved at any given time.

For 42 years, Everitt has worked on nothing else. A tenured professor of physics at Stanford, he has never taught a class.

But he has been busy. As principal investigator for the gravity probe, he has written or co-written more than 100 research papers on the project. He also helped develop ground-breaking technologies that will be key to the probe's success -- if it ever makes it into space.

Though the project has produced some dazzling, technologically advanced instruments and could yield enormous benefits for physics, it arguably has had more delays, cost overruns and cancellations than any other NASA scientific endeavor.

"There has been nothing like it in NASA's history," said Rex Geveden, deputy director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., who has overseen the project for nearly a decade. "It's hard to believe that the idea came about at the dawn of the Space Age."

In December, Everitt and his team came tantalizingly close to launching the trumpet-nosed satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base after half a dozen attempts over the years. But a technical glitch prompted NASA to postpone the launch once again, this time until April, while the probe undergoes repairs.

"We've waited 40 years. What's another few months?" Everitt said. "It's nothing like what the medieval cathedral builders had to go through."

Forgotten Project

Many scientists outside the esoteric world of theoretical physics long ago lost track of the project. Louis Friedman, executive director of the Pasadena-based Planetary Society, was surprised to learn that the probe had been slated for a launch.

"They're still working on that?" asked Friedman, who got a degree in physics in 1961. "We were talking about it when I was a graduate student."

Critics say the project is a symbol of what is wrong with the nation's space program.

"We have never spent so much to learn so little," said Kenneth Nordtvedt, a physicist at the University of Washington. "If it had been developed and flown within a decade of its conception, it probably would have been a worthwhile experiment."

Nordtvedt contends that other experiments conducted since then strongly support Einstein's theory, and that the probe's launch would represent a mere footnote in physics. Scientists have looked at variations in the orbit of Mercury, measured microwaves around the sun and bounced signals off Mars, all to test Einstein's theory.

"Although it is a clever and beautiful experiment, I don't think it justifies the $700-million price tag," Nordtvedt said. "The rest of the world wasn't sitting on their hands. They were going ahead and doing experiments to prove [Einstein's] theory."

Einstein's general theory of relativity, published in 1916, said in part that gravity is not an invisible force -- as Newton theorized -- but rather a distortion in the fabric of space caused by massive objects.

Under Einstein's theory, Earth, like a bowling ball thrown on a rubber sheet, stretches the invisible fabric of space and causes smaller objects to move toward it. As Earth rotates, it churns the fabric, dragging space and time around it like a pinwheel.

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