Nothing to See Here

I’d hoped this New York Times story on warp drive research contained was actual news, but it’s just a rehash of stuff I linked to last fall so apparently there’s been no actual progress. That’s what happens when you let the NYT get your hopes up:

Dr. White likened his experiments to the early stages of the Manhattan Project, which were aimed at creating a very small nuclear reaction merely as proof that it could be done.

They tried to go through and demonstrate a nuclear reactor and generate half a watt,” he said. “That’s not something you’re going to market. Nobody’s going to buy that. It’s just making sure they understood the physics and science.”

While I think this is way cool and exactly the sort of ragged-edge R&D that NASA should pursue vigorously, my enthusiasm is curbed by the thudding crash of lumbering reality. In particular, this stuck out like a sore thumb:

For NASA, Dr. White’s warp speed experiments represent a rounding error in its budget, with about $50,000 spent on equipment in an agency that spends nearly $18 billion annually. The agency is far more focused on more achievable projects — building the next generation Orion series spacecraft, working on the International Space Station and preparing for a planned future mission to capture an asteroid.

Emphasis mine.

What, exactly, has NASA “achieved” in terms of new vehicle development since barely dragging the Shuttle across the finish line thirty-odd years ago? It’s an easy answer: think of a whole number that falls between 1 and -1. Null. Nil. ZERO. And the amount of money they’ve spent on all those cancelled projects? Well, it’s something approaching the exact opposite of zero.

So yeah, this would all sound a lot more impressive if I had more confidence in the guvmint’s ability to see any high-tech project through to completion, much less on time. Or on budget. Of course, they’re real good at stuff like tapping our cell phones or reading our e-mails (“Yes, Verizon? I’m interested in your ‘share EVERYTHING’ plan…). But when it comes to next-level tech projects that don’t involve violating their constitutional limits? Yeah, not so much.

Having sold the fusion facility in its current incarnation as a device for testing the reliability of nuclear weapons, the lab’s leaders now are back to selling it as an energy machine. The lab’s director told CBS’s “60 Minutes” earlier this year that NIF’s aim is to generate “clean, limitless power.” He said that would free the United States of greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on Mideast oil, and that commercialization of the technology could begin in ten years.

Good grief. Sounds like they’re setting up a plot device for the next Marvel Avengers movie. Come to think of it, NIF wasn’t a total waste since it made for a really cool set in the new Star Trek movie. So there’s that.

National Ignition Facility: it may have accomplished more as a Star Trek set.

It’s all fun and games until someone has to climb inside the warp core.

Make It So

Just found this piece on NASA’s research into faster-than-light propulsion at Popular Science (yeah, I know: often not much better than the Weekly Reader from grade school, but such is today’s media) so I’ll only link. Deep thoughts later. Or not.

Having said that, at least someone at NASA gets it:

In the wake of the shuttle program’s termination and given the increasing role of private industry in low-Earth orbit flights, NASA has said it will refocus on far-flung, audacious exploration, reaching far beyond the rather provincial boundary of the moon. But it can only reach those goals if it develops new propulsion systems—the faster the better. A few days after the 100 Year Starship gathering, the head of NASA, Charles Bolden, echoed White’s remarks. “One of these days, we want to get to warp speed,” he said. “We want to go faster than the speed of light, and we don’t want to stop at Mars.”

If that “someone” happens to be the Administrator, then so much the better. Investigating advanced propulsion concepts and hands-on work like the Asteroid Capture Mission are precisely what a government space agency should be doing. Leave earth-orbit access to private business while helping us figure out how to go even farther.

In the 1920’s, when the U.S. Post Office needed to move large amounts of mail across the country quickly, they didn’t design, build, and operate their own airplanes: they hired out the job to a number of companies that eventually became household names. In particular, you know them as United, American, and the late-great Pan Am. These carriers gave us pioneering aviators like Charles Lindbergh and Elrey Jeppesen.

In other words: a space industry, not a space program.

Warped Minds

NASA’s latest project under construction. You wish.

Maybe Elon Musk isn’t thinking big enough?

A few months ago, physicist Harold White stunned the aeronautics world when he announced that he and his team at NASA had begun work on the development of a faster-than-light warp drive. His proposed design, an ingenious re-imagining of an Alcubierre Drive, may eventually result in an engine that can transport a spacecraft to the nearest star in a matter of weeks — and all without violating Einstein’s law of relativity.

I’ve heard about this kind of research off-and-on for some time, and have to admit I thought it was nuts. But if it’s actually within reach of current technology (namely, enough energy to power such a thing) then, yeah. That’s the sort of out-there R&D that NASA ought to be working on, because new technology pretty much always starts with a lab experiment:

What White is waiting for is existence of proof — what he’s calling a “Chicago Pile” moment — a reference to a great practical example.

“In late 1942, humanity activated the first nuclear reactor in Chicago generating a whopping half Watt — not enough to power a light bulb,” he said. “However, just under one year later, we activated a ~4MW reactor which is enough to power a small town. Existence proof is important.”

Once the underlying science is understood, it becomes an engineering problem. And that’s where the really cool stuff gets done.

11/29 UPDATE: Warp Drive goes all respectable-like in the Atlantic Monthly.