National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Glenn Research Center

Identifying the Next Steps for Research in Theoretical Spacecraft Propulsion

By: Kimberly Trent

Principle Investigator: Dr. Marc Millis

Objectives and Overview

Over the course of the summer, I will be reviewing much of the past theoretical spacecraft propulsion research. The discipline of theoretical propulsion, involves the research of devices and concepts such as space drives, warp drives, gravity control, and faster-than-light travel. Theoretical propulsion is a nascent field that started in the 1990s, and a great amount of the research that has been done has been compiled for the first time in the book Frontiers of Propulsion Science which is pending publication. I have access to the manuscript of this book through my Principal Investigator (PI), Marc Millis who is the main editor.

Millis led the Breakthrough Physics Propulsion (BPP) Project when it was being funded, from 1996 to 2003. Since current propulsion technology is not suited for interstellar travel, new physics, or a deeper understanding of the laws of nature, is needed so that more advanced propulsion methods can be developed. This project funded research that strived to uncover this new science. BPP ended in 2003 when the President announced his Vision for Space Exploration and NASA’s focus shifted to missions whose deadlines would only permit the use of technologies based on existing science. This resulted in theoretical propulsion research funding being terminated which ended the BPP.

Still, Millis continues to pursue this field in his spare time by working with other scientists in academia, in industry, at different NASA centers, and in Federal Labs around the country who are interested in this topic and who are committed to seeing the progression of this field despite the lack of funding. Millis founded the Tau Zero Foundation which formally connects this group of researchers. The foundation is dedicated to carrying on the goals and objectives of the BPP. To work towards this goal, this network collaborates on further research, reviews papers written on this research, and creates tools that will make it easier for the next generation of researchers to access past research on this topic. The book Frontiers of Propulsion Science is the most recent product of the efforts Millis and the Tau Zero Foundation.

The purpose of this book is to give managers, scientists, engineers and graduate students the information they need to start research in this area. The book does this by providing detailed explanations of most of the research that has taken place so far, by identifying what propulsion concepts and devices show promise but need further investigation, and by pointing out the paths with dead ends that have already been taken so that those just entering the field do not make the same mistakes, and so that they can make a well informed decision on a starting point for further research.

The book also provides an overview of the history of this field noting how it matches up with a timeline of the major milestones reached throughout the years in general physics. In addition, the book stresses the importance of approaching this research in a scientifically rigorous way. Since many critics feel that we don’t have a foundation in an understanding of the laws of nature that would allow us to carry out meaningful scientific inquiry and research in the area of theoretical propulsion, they are unconvinced that any sort of work in this area will be fruitful. In order for this research to be taken seriously by critics and other scientists, Millis and his colleagues stress that the researcher must balance between conducting their study within the rigorous constraints of conventional physics while still remaining open to the possibility of results that may test or extend our understanding of those principles.
In addition they argue that this research is important to engage in from now because if one limits themselves to only work with the physical understanding we already have, then the best they could ever be able to do is to create a slightly improved version of things we already have. We will not be able to reach a new level of space exploration with this type of thinking. Theoretical spacecraft propulsion research is important and useful because even if a breakthrough does not exist, its minimum value, which is what can be learned along the way, can still be revolutionary.

Project Description and Goals

Before I start reading the book Frontiers of Propulsion Science my PI would like me to write down my expectations of the book in terms of what questions I have about theoretical spacecraft propulsion research that I would like to have answered. After I finish reading the book, he would like me to state whether the book met those expectations, and if all of them were not met, he would like to know what was missing. Also, while reading through the book, my PI would like me to make note of the things I did not understand, and after researching what was being discussed, he would like me to write down the language that I would use to further clarify the book’s discussion. One of the purposes of this book is to provide graduate students, like myself, with a composite resource on this topic for surveying what has been done in this field so far and what next-steps can be taken so that they can make a more informed decision on a topic for their PhD dissertation. Therefore, Millis would like to have this information because he would like to know how well the book does in communicating this information on a level that graduate students would find understandable and useful.

Millis would also like to know what further clarifications would be needed for high school and college students. Since one of the next goals of Millis and the Tau Foundation is to convert the material in Frontiers of Propulsion Science into a form that would be suitable for presenting and teaching it to students at the high school and college level, they need to know what concepts need to be broken down further for each of these groups.

After I read through much of the past theoretical spacecraft propulsion research using Frontiers of Propulsion Science along with a number of other individual research papers, I will decide on a research topic that is of interest to me. I will also use the book to decide what “next-steps” should be taken for carrying out further research in this area.

Then I will write a paper, suitable for submission to the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, on that theoretical propulsion concept or device and on the course of action that should be taken for further research.