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October 07, 2003

General Moonbeam?

By Jim Dallas

That's the nickname Taegan Goddard suggests Wesley Clark could be tagged with for his dalliance with space-time apostasy.

Clark, in a forum on the future of NASA, made a remark about faster-than-light travel last week (NY Times | Wired.com), and caught a lot of flak for it:

Admittedly, the newest Democratic presidential candidate could use a health care proposal. And he has struggled to secure such basics as hiring a poster printer in New Hampshire (see Exhibit A: Campaign poster from a recent Clark appearance).

But Clark is the first presidential candidate this year -- and the first ever, with the possible exception of Jerry Brown -- to come up with a policy on time travel.

"I still believe in E-equals-mc-squared," the candidate announced at a gathering in New Hampshire last week, "but I can't believe that in all of human history, we'll never ever be able to go beyond the speed of light to reach where we want to go." According to Wired.com, which reported this bold stand, Clark continued: "It's my only faith-based initiative."

His remarks caught the attention of late-night host David Letterman, who said Clark is already pursuing his initiative. "As a matter of fact, earlier today he went back in time to remove his foot from his mouth," Letterman said.

I took an astronomy class last year that included discussions of the relevant physics, and frankly I think the media are being harsh on Wesley Clark. And of course, if the idea of faster-than-light travel is so far out, why did NASA spend money on researching it?

Taking on Einstein might sound quixotic, at best. Surprisingly, though, a sprinkling of physicists around the world are doing it... Some are down-fight conventional, even highly regarded by the generally conservative physics community. These tamer rebels are taking on just a slice of relativity--the part that says nothing can go faster than the speed of light.

A decade ago that would have been heresy. But now there appear to be several plausible approaches to breaking--or at least bending--that most hallowed of natural laws, and some of them are being demonstrated in the laboratory. Perhaps the universe's ultimate speed limit might someday go the way of the national 55-miles-per-hour statute. Even NASA has jumped on the bandwagon, providing encouragement and a certain amount of funding to a growing band of relativistic scofflaws. After all, who else really needs to get anywhere faster than 186,000 miles per second?


[Marc] Millis runs NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion program. Now that astronomers seem to be on the verge of finding potential life-supporting planets in distant solar systems, it's only natural to start thinking about visiting them. Unfortunately, the prospects for interstellar travel are not cheery. The distances between stars are so vast that a spacecraft moving at the speed at which Apollo capsules journeyed to the moon would take almost a million years just to reach our nearest neighbor. Even at the speed of light, a round-trip to one of the more interesting stars in our neighborhood could take centuries. That's where faster-than-light travel--and Millis's program--comes in.

The program, which consists essentially of Millis, isn't the agency's sole effort to explore strange new technologies for getting us to the stars. An "exotic propulsion" group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, for example, is studying new types of rocket engines to that end. But compared with the ideas Millis is looking at, the JPL group is dealing with pretty tame stuff; after all, it is restricting itself to designs that obey the known laws of physics. Even Star Trek seems mundane to Millis. "I get really horrified when people talk about the Enterprise's impulse engines being based on fusion-drive rockets," he says. "Why would they need rockets? They have artificial gravity. All they have to do is turn that sideways and they've got propulsion."


Meanwhile, on the side, Millis once again pulled brainstorming sessions together, this time with NASA engineers and scientists interested in speculating on entirely new forms of spacecraft propulsion and the physics that might underlie them. By 1984, NASA had authorized Millis to use up to a fifth of his salaried time on the brainstorming. By 1990 that was extended to half his time. Last year the agency made it his full-time job and even gave him a $50,000-a-year budget...


But Millis has managed to use his modest resources to become a sort of Oprah of faster-than-light travel. He conducts interviews, holds surprisingly well attended workshops, and his Web site, Warp Drive, When? (www.lerc.nasa.gov/www/pao/warp.htm), fielded over 50,000 visits in December 1997, its first month. Despite his fervency, Millis insists his expectations are realistic. "I'm prepared to accept the idea that we can't go faster than light," he says. "But that's no reason not to try to look for loopholes. searching for a good foot in the door is where we're at right now."

-- from "Faster than a Speeding Photon", Discover Magazine, August 1998.

(Millis's program at NASA had its funding cut last year, but Millis is still working as an aerospace engineer at Glenn Research Center).

In any case, after Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Bush the lesser, should Americans be shocked by a politician wanting to turn back time? I think not.

Indeed, while this is certainly off-the-beaten path, the willingness of Clark to insert himself into a scientific controversy tends to exhibit courage as well as establish his credentials as a Renaissance Man. It fits into Clark's overall theme of long-term vision. And as such, I think what Clark did by mentioning warp drives was really cool.

(Disclosure Number One: I'm a real big Star Trek fan.)

(Disclosure Number Two: I'm still on the Dean bandwagon.)

Posted by Jim Dallas at October 7, 2003 02:41 PM | TrackBack


A BBC News story from 1999 also treats the possibility of warp drive with seriousness. Though it certainly won't happen in Gen. Clark's lifetime.

Posted by: Tim Z at October 7, 2003 03:24 PM

Speaking of Star Trek technology, we're actually a bit closer to teletransportation than warp speed..
But so far they are still at the sub-atomic level.

And Boeing is seriously looking into anti-grav.

Posted by: Tim Z at October 7, 2003 04:51 PM

establish his credentials as a Renaissance Man.

Woo hoo! Next, he'll claim to have invented the Internet. I'll vote for him if he selects Stephen Hawking as his running mate.

Posted by: Mark Harden at October 7, 2003 04:56 PM

Alas, Dr.Hawking, author of "A Brief History of Time" is not a US citizen.
Unfortunately, Dr.Dubya, author of "Voodoo Economics: the Next Generation" is.

Posted by: Tim Z at October 7, 2003 05:55 PM

Alas, Dr.Hawking, author of "A Brief History of Time" is not a US citizen.

Well, all he needs to do is climb into Wesley Clark's time machine, set the dial for the day before he was born, and tell his Mum to get here quick!

Posted by: Mark Harden at October 8, 2003 08:06 AM

If you look closely at the list of speakers for the 1998 Breakthrough Propulsion Physics conference ( http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/bpp/TM-97-206241.htm ), probably the high point in interest and funding for this program, you will see the keynote speaker is... the Hon. Dennis Kucinich! I guess he hasn't mentioned anything about this in his own campaign.

Posted by: Andrew Janca at November 18, 2003 07:12 PM
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