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Issue Date: August 2003 Issue

The NASA Files

Erick Trickey

What's going on at NASA Glenn? Clevelanders wonder, curious and a bit puzzled.

You can see it from Brookpark Road or from a plane flying out of Hopkins Airport: more than 150 buildings on 350 acres, with 3,400 people working inside. It was founded in the 1940s as an aircraft engine lab. But to a lot of people in Cleveland, what the country's space agency does at the John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field is a mystery in plain sight.

"This town has never embraced NASA!" Mayor Jane Campbell ad-libbed, waving her arms in frustration, during her State of the City address this year.

"Northeast Ohio," wrote the author of a recent study, "has either taken for granted or generally ignored a major federal laboratory in its midst."

Business leaders, eager to remake Cleveland as a home to exciting new technologies, are trying to change that. But NASA Glenn has never been good at sharing with Cleveland, leaving the corporate community feeling spurned, complains Dennis Eckart, president of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association.

"For too long, they have felt safely secure, locked behind their federal fence," Eckart says.

NASA Glenn officials say they've reached out to Cleveland in recent years and are ready to do more.

"When I first came here, we had no connection with the business community," says Donald Campbell, who's been NASA Glenn's director since 1994. "Now, at least the business community knows we exist and what we do.

"As far as [transferring] what we do to the business community, we have a job ahead of us. We're doing it already, but we have to make sure we continue to do that."

What's going on at NASA Glenn? The center has grown from troubleshooter for World War II airplanes into NASA's chief laboratory for powering spaceships and one of its space-engine design labs. It's still working on making aircraft engines quieter, more efficient and less polluting, and icing facility has helped planes fly more safely for decades. It's also designed the International Space Station's solar-panel power system and created radical new electric engines for space probes that will help NASA explore the edges of the solar system.

Huge metal pipes wind around one Glenn building like a Habitrail for tank-sized hamsters. The pipes feed a wind tunnel, which tests jet-engine components and model space shuttle engines. A building at NASA's Plum Brook Station near Sandusky houses the world's largest vacuum chamber, where NASA tests spacecraft.

Another Glenn building includes a 460-foot hole in the ground with a pile of plastic-foam pellets on the bottom. Engineers drop capsules filled with liquids and flammable gases down the hole, because during the five seconds that the capsules fall, gravity all but disappears inside them. NASA Glenn workers are the world's specialists in how liquids float and flow, and how things burn in microgravity (what we usually call zero gravity). Glenn is building a fluids and combustion experiment rack for the space station, complete with cameras, microscopes, a combustion chamber and laser tweezers to manipulate samples. The shuttle Columbia was carrying seven Glenn-managed experiments when it burned up while re-entering Earth's atmosphere in February.

Some Glenn researchers are looking at the effects weightlessness has on humans, giving them medical insights that may help people on Earth. Meanwhile, the engine and power work gives Glenn experience in all sorts of technologies and with materials exposed to very high temperatures.

"They have expertise in all of the areas we've identified as important to the region: biomedicine, information technology, polymers and advanced materials, fuel cells, and instrument controls and technologies," says Dorothy Baunach, director of the Northeast Ohio Technology Coalition. "It's a perfect fit."

There's a lot of talent at NASA Glenn: 275 civil servants with doctorates, plus more Ph.D. contractors. The center has won 83 awards from Research & Development Magazine, plus a television Emmy in the 1980s for its contributions to communications-satellite technology.

But much of that talent never leaves the center. "There is no real incentive for folks at NASA Glenn to work with the outside community on either economic development or new-product development," Baunach observes. "The individual worker isn't given, say, free time or incentives."

That's because working with the community isn't at the core of NASA's mission -- exploring space is. NASA is supposed to share its technology with industry, but there's no rule that each center has to do so locally.

Eckart argues that Glenn should try to be more like Alabama's Marshall Space Flight Center and Maryland's Goddard Space Flight Center. Their employees see their work as a community asset, Eckart says, and the centers have created "test benches where scientists for universities worked alongside government scientists, and chambers of commerce in the communities help promote the work being done."

Glenn officials say they've forged more connections with Cleveland recently. The center's commercial technology office has grown from about six employees in the mid-'90s to 30 today, and is more focused on the region and its needs, says its chief, Larry Viterna.

Glenn signs more Space Act agreements -- research-and-development partnerships with businesses, universities and other government agencies -- than any other NASA center, according to Viterna. Forty percent are with Ohio partners. The center's economic initiatives, such as the LIFT technology incubator, helped support 10 start-up companies and eight more incubating companies between 1999 and 2002. While not all of those companies are using NASA technology ? some simply use space at the incubator ? they generated $11.7 million in new sales in 2002, according to Viterna's office.

All sorts of groups and initiatives are trying to connect Glenn with Ohio's economy, from the Glenn-affiliated Ohio Aerospace Institute to the state's Third Frontier project. But those economic efforts may be rolled back; proposed federal budget cuts could shut down Glenn's incubator and its GLITeC technology transfer center.

A recent study claims Glenn is full of untapped economic potential. The Battelle Memorial Institute declared that Glenn could generate $4.8 billion more for the area in the next 10 years -- if it receives $485 million in investment. Business leaders say expecting that much investment is unrealistic -- though it's about the same amount as the price tag on a new convention center-- especially in a recession, but that some of the study's ideas are worth pursuing.

Donald Campbell says Glenn is willing to help entrepreneurs. "We're not demanding it has to be [done]," he explains. "We're making the technology available. And somebody has to make a choice: Do I want to invest in those companies?"

What's going on at NASA Glenn? Gov. Bob Taft wants to know. He's worried.

In June, news leaked out that NASA Glenn had scored the worst of all 10 NASA centers on more than half of the questions in a federal employee survey. The biggest gap between Glenn and the rest of the agency appeared in questions about leadership. Only a third of Glenn workers surveyed agreed with the statement, "I hold my organization's leaders in high regard," compared to more than half of workers NASA-wide.

Taft wrote an alarmed letter to Sean O'Keefe, the head of NASA, calling the survey a "a matter of grave and urgent concern."

"Management and direction at the Glenn Research Center ? must be second to none," Taft wrote. "We cannot continue to tolerate a situation that reflects poorly on NASA Glenn's able workers and fails to realize the Center's full potential?"

Taft and O'Keefe talked soon after, and discussed Glenn director Campbell's performance and leadership, says Taft's spokesman, Orest Holubec.

Holubec says the governor "is hopeful" that Campbell can fix the problems at Glenn.

What does Taft think of the job Campbell has done up to now? "I think the letter speaks for itself," Holubec says.

In early June, soon after the survey leaked out, Campbell said he had yet to see a copy. He added that he needed to talk to employees to learn the reasons for the low scores: "We're going to form focus groups. We're going to have meetings with the employees at all the management levels."

A month later, Campbell said he'd seen the survey but hadn't analyzed it yet. "I'm trying to understand it," he said. Still, he'd begun the process of collecting employees' feedback. "If there are some issues, we want to get to the root of the issues." He noted that Glenn's own surveys hadn't found any "glaring issues" in the past, but conceded than when only a third of his employees hold their leaders in high regard, "Maybe we have a communication problem."

Campbell said O'Keefe hadn't talked with him about the survey or Taft's letter. Asked to comment on the letter, Campbell said he stands behind Glenn's management team -- and noted, without elaborating, that he is NASA's longest-serving center director.

Eckart calls Glenn's leaders "competent," which may be damning with faint praise. And an indication that, in an organization already under public scrutiny, the pressure for strong leadership seems to be mounting.

What's going on at NASA Glenn? The rest of NASA may be asking soon, because the whole agency is looking for new direction after the Columbia disaster put a halt to shuttle flights.

Glenn has sometimes struggled to protect its funding and its place within NASA. Local leaders say they've had to fight to protect the center from deep budget cuts at least three times in the last 20 years, most recently in 2001.

Glenn's $765 million budget makes it fairly large as NASA centers go, yet it lacks the visibility and prestige of other centers, such as Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Johnson Space Center in Houston. Its research mission isn't flashy compared to rocket launch pads, mission control or Alabama and California's spaceship-building centers. Even renaming the center in 1999 for the first American to orbit the Earth didn't burnish its reputation much.

That means Glenn could suffer more as critics question NASA's mission and cut its budget.

Or, as NASA changes, it could find new ways to contribute.

If the agency replaces the shuttle with a newer, safer spacecraft, Glenn's new space-engine ideas could help. Some critics say NASA needs more ambitious goals. Many NASA employees, still inspired by the moon missions, want to send astronauts to Mars and back. Congress probably wouldn't approve such a large, expensive mission, but Glenn's scientists are already working toward the goal, in case the funding climate changes.

The John Glenn Biomedical Consortium, a new collaboration with local universities, aims to protect future astronauts from all the ways long space flights can hurt their bodies. Glenn staff members working on remote heart monitors for astronauts, studying bone-density loss in microgravity and looking at space radiation's effects on the human body all say the same thing: We'll need this if we go to Mars.

Campbell insists that Glenn's future is bright, that its new space engines will be vital to NASA's exploration and that its cutting-edge jet engines will help reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Eckart, too, is excited about Glenn's engines, and about its microgravity experiments. "I feel much better about [NASA Glenn's future] today than I did five years ago," he says.

"The areas of strength out there [are] things NASA's going to need to have as long as they're going to fly," says Baunach.

Michael Patterson

As NASA's Deep Space 1 probe slipped away from Earth, Mike Patterson, head of the NASA Glenn team that designed its ion engines, sat at his desk in Cleveland, nervously watching its engine readouts on the Web.

"Four minutes [after] turning the engine on, we had a short, a glitch," he remembers. "I was pretty depressed. "I saw my future vaporizing."

NASA's Cleveland scientists had waited 40 years for one chance to prove their engines worked. Now, their project's fate depended on Deep Space 1's controllers, who spent six weeks trying to shake free the tiny metal debris that caused the short.

When they finally turned the engine back on, it worked fine.

"If that [glitch] had not been cleared, you can pretty much guarantee almost no one would be working on ion propulsion," says Patterson.

Instead, Deep Space 1's mission was a triumph for Glenn's ion engines. The probe flew within 10 miles of tiny asteroid 9969 Braille in July 1999. In fall 2001, it buzzed by Comet Borrelly, snapping pictures and measuring the comet's magnetic field and plasma waves. Glenn's engine team had proven itself after decades of work and years of indifference from the rest of NASA.

"The joke was, ion propulsion is and always will be the technology of the future," Patterson says. Now, dozens of spacecraft designers want to use ion engines -- powered by electricity from solar panels, fueled by inert gas -- to send an orbiter to Neptune, fly by Pluto, or visit Saturn or Uranus. Ion engines will send NASA's Dawn mission to Ceres and Vesta, the solar system's two largest asteroids, in 2006.

Harold Kaufman, a NASA scientist in Cleveland, invented the first working ion engine in 1958. In the same year men first landed on the moon, 1969, NASA tested an ion engine in Earth orbit. By the time Kaufman retired in the early 1970s, NASA's Cleveland center had an entire division working on electrical propulsion, eager to use its ideas to send men and probes to Mars and beyond.

But Congress slashed NASA's budget, and there was little need for ion engines in a less ambitious agency. By the mid-'80s, when Patterson joined NASA Glenn, "there were only two of us working on ion propulsion."

They didn't give up, because they knew their engines could do things chemical rockets couldn't.

"I like to think of chemical vs. electric as like the tortoise and hare," says Patterson. "With chemical propulsion, you fire 20,000 pounds of thrust for several minutes and then you turn it off and then you coast.

"With electric propulsion, you turn it on and then you leave it on for thousands and thousands and thousands of hours. It's very low thrust ? but you're constantly building up speed."

Ion engines emit a wispy blue glow, not a roaring red flame. It's produced when electrons from a filament heated by solar-panel electricity collide with atoms of a gas, usually xenon, and form ions ? electrically charged atoms. Electric fields push the ions out of the engine at very high speeds, pushing the spacecraft along.

The result is a tiny amount of thrust, but, combined with a rocket booster to kick a probe out of Earth orbit, it's fuel-efficient enough to fly a billion miles to the outer planets. (NASA's Voyager 1 and 2 went that far in the '80s, but only because the planets happened to line up, so one planet's gravity could slingshot the probes to the next.)

Yet Glenn's electric-engine staff knew NASA wouldn't suddenly use their unproven technology on an expensive space probe. So they passed their designs on to aerospace companies, which needed new ways to propel satellites. The companies were building better satellites that lasted longer -- only to see them run out of fuel and momentum and fall to Earth.

So the companies launched satellites with Glenn-designed arc-jet engines, a simple electric engine. An ion-propelled satellite followed in 1997. Then, NASA took a chance on Deep Space 1 in 1998.

Now, Glenn's designs get respect in the fierce competition among NASA centers. Project managers elsewhere in the agency finally see Deep Space 1's engines as "a real technology," says Patterson (shown above in a Glenn vacuum chamber, where he tests engines).

"My job is to make it obsolete as quickly as possible," he adds. His team's new, more efficient ion engine, NASA's Evolutionary Xenon Thruster, should be ready to fly by 2008. Other teams at Glenn and elsewhere are working on Project Prometheus, a nuclear-powered electric engine that could send a probe to Jupiter and fly it back and forth among the planet's moons in the 2010s.

"You know what's the sad thing? In the '60s and '70s, there were so many people working on this, [and] so many people actually passed away," Patterson says. "They didn't get to see the application of the technology."

Now, Patterson and one other researcher are the only engineers left who remember the details of the early scientists' work. "Wow, where are all those guys who were here in the '60s and '70s?" he catches himself thinking. "Can we call them in? Are they still around?"

Geoffrey Landis

Geoffrey Landis lives on Earth, but Mars is always on his mind. In his imagination, in his writing and in his work designing spacecraft power systems and helping to guide robot explorers, Landis makes the red planet his second home.

He explored it through Mars Pathfinder's cameras in 1997. And it's the setting of his award-winning 2000 science-fiction novel, "Mars Crossing," which describes the Martian scenery as vividly as the characters. "The canyon walls were striped," he writes, "horizontal bands of deep orange and light yellow, separated by hair-thin lines of black; in the midday sunlight they sparkled as if bits of diamond were embedded in them."

The astronauts in his novel kick up bursts of red soil as they walk, until ochre stains cover their legs. Landis knows that dust well. He's working on ways to keep it from coating Mars probes' solar panels and snuffing out their energy.

In January, he'll be living on Mars time, getting up 40 minutes later every day to greet the red planet's sunrise instead of Earth's. He's part of a team of 60 NASA scientists who'll direct the Mars Exploration Rovers every day when the probes wake up with the sun.

Mars "feels like a place that's accessible," Landis says. "It's something we look at and, if we want to, we can go there now. You can also look at images from the Mars Global Surveyor" -- a probe orbiting the planet -- "and get a feel for what it'd be like if you were actually there. So there's a real sense of presence about Mars."

Landis excitedly describes the rover missions at a Euclid Rotary Club lunch in April. He shows up dressed the part of a casual science guy, in a plaid shirt and informal slacks. His thin hair and scruffy beard are as red as Mars dust.

He flicks through slides that show off the rovers, launched this June and July and due to reach Mars in January.

A rover looks like a six-legged robot ostrich. Its solar panels fan out like wings. "It comes up to about here on me," Landis says, holding his hand near his waist. Its tall neck and head full of cameras reach higher: almost five feet from the ground.

Each rover will land folded up inside airbags made of Kevlar, the same material that's in bulletproof vests. Another of Landis's slides shows the airbags, stitched together to form a ball, being tested at NASA's Plum Brook facility near Sandusky, inside the world's largest vacuum chamber.

Landis explains that the rovers are headed for places on Mars where scientists think there used to be water: Gusev Crater, which looks like a dry lake bed, and Meridiani Planum, which infrared photos show has hematite, a form of iron ore usually created by hot springs. If the rovers find proof of water, it'd mean that primitive life forms, such as microbes, could have once existed on Mars.

"On Earth, the instant there was liquid water, there were signs of life," he says. "Did Mars have life? Follow the water."

Full of an explorer's curiosity, Landis describes Mars' giant valley, Valles Marineris, which makes the Grand Canyon look tiny, and its 16-mile-tall Olympus Mons volcano, which dwarfs Mount Everest and punctures the atmosphere, leaving a condensation trail behind it.

NASA is full of people like Landis, who pursued their childhood fascination with the Apollo moon landings all the way to a career in the space agency. Like many Apollo fans, Landis still laments the country's decision to cut back on manned space exploration in the 1970s. He wishes we were sending astronauts to Mars right now.

A club member asks him how he'd defend NASA's work to someone in Hough who might want the money spent to fight urban poverty.

"We spend this money in America," he answers, animated by the challenge. "We contribute to making our science and technology No. 1. When we study other planets, we learn about the Earth. When we study Venus, we learn about the greenhouse effect. When we study Mars, we learn about the effect of dust in the atmosphere."

Landis has a third planet in his life now. He and some NASA Glenn engineers are designing a possible mission to Venus. Airplanes and rovers would land on the blue-green planet and collect a soil sample to send back to Earth. It won't be easy, he says. Venus's thick atmosphere makes it about 800 degrees Fahrenheit there, a bit hotter than an oven when it's cleaning itself. But he says it's worth the effort.

"I think it's compelling to everybody, just the idea to go out and learn, to see places no one's ever seen, to go places no one's ever been," Landis says. "It's almost built into the American character to find that interesting?

"It seems like, in the 21st century, this is this best way to do it. There really are not too many frontiers, except the one straight up."

Rafat Ansari

Growing up in Pakistan, Rafat Ansari was enthralled by the American space program. He and his father went to see John Glenn's Freedom 7 capsule three times when it came to the U.S. Embassy on a world tour. Seven years later, they sat together, listening to the radio as Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

"I told my mom, who wanted me to be a doctor, that I didn't want to hurt animals." (He knew he'd have to vivisect them in medical school.) Ansari wanted to be a rocket scientist.

Today, he's a fluids physicist, yet his work encompasses both dreams for his future. Ansari works for NASA, at the center named for John Glenn. He's conducting experiments that may help astronauts and doctors alike, developing laser scopes that look into people's eyes for signs of diseases.

"The eye is the window to the body," he's fond of saying. Thanks to him, future astronauts may put on helmets with laser scopes pointed at their eyes to scan for damage from space radiation. National Eye Institute researchers are using his scopes to look for early signs of cataracts.

If his experiments succeed, Ansari's scopes may eventually search for an early sign of Alzheimer's disease. Diabetics may be able to look into a scope to test their blood sugar instead of pricking their fingers.

Ansari joined NASA in 1988 to work on space shuttle experiments. The agency was growing superconducting crystals in fluids on shuttle flights, and fluids experts were monitoring their growth with laser instruments -- a technique called dynamic light scattering.

When Ansari returned to Pakistan for a visit, his father told him he'd developed cataracts and was about to undergo eye surgery. Ansari wondered if his laser instruments could look at eye fluids and detect cataract formation.

He bought some calves' eyes from a slaughterhouse and put them in a freezer. To his surprise, they clouded over, cataractlike, from the cold. He tried his instruments on them. They worked. Soon, Ansari showed that lasers could see cataracts beginning to form long before they clouded someone's vision.

That is useful to NASA because exposure to space radiation causes early cataracts. The agency wants to use the scopes to monitor astronauts' health.

His results won respect from medical experts, even though he isn't a doctor. "I think this work was accepted very well," he says. "People like to see new techniques and new technology -- enhance doctors' ability to treat disease."

Physicians aren't clamoring for a way to detect cataracts early, since surgery can easily get rid of them. Even so, one research university is about to use Ansari's scopes to test possible anti-cataract drugs on animals. If useful drugs are ever developed, Ansari's scopes could help eye doctors prescribe them.

His lasers can inspect other eye problems as well, from glaucoma to age-related retina deterioration. They can also measure blood flow in eyes, which could help NASA deal with the blurry vision some astronauts experience in space. When people are floating in microgravity, blood and body fluids rush to their heads. Ansari suspects that makes the back of the eye swell, changing the eye's shape and focus. He's tested the idea by wearing his own helmet scopes on NASA's "vomit comet," a KC-135 airplane that takes off from Hopkins and flies stomach-churning wavy patterns in the sky to create a few seconds of freefall inside.

His scopes may also detect an early sign of Alzheimer's disease. "Alzheimer's is a disease of the brain. Can we detect that through the eye? It sounds radical," Ansari acknowledges. But some scientists believe the same molecules that cause Alzheimer's by clogging the brain with plaque may also form crystals in the eye. If that's true, researchers could watch the eye to track the progression of Alzheimer's and test possible drugs.

Ansari is also trying to develop a scope to read blood sugar in the eye's aqueous humor, the fluid between the cornea and the lens. NASA's new John Glenn Biomedical Consortium is funding the work. "Everything we eat, in about 12 minutes, shows up in the eye," he says.

Ansari's work is interesting, though some of it is too new to judge, says David Huang, a surgeon at The Cleveland Clinic's Cole Eye Institute who also works on eye lasers. The cataract detector looks like a "very good application" for astronauts, Huang says, but "not as useful" for others unless preventive cataract treatment comes along. Lab results for Ansari's glucose readings are "moderately encouraging." Glucose is hard to read in the eye, but Huang says the scope "will be a major clinical breakthrough for diabetic patients if it proves to be sensitive and reliable in clinical trials."

Ansari is optimistic. He keeps a picture of Mahatma Gandhi and a quote from the Indian leader in his office. "If I had my way," the quote reads, "it is my ambition to wipe away every tear from every eye."

Marc Millis

Marc Millis, head of NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion Physics program, has spent the last six years exploring far-out ideas about defying gravity, bending space-time, jumping through wormholes and harnessing mysterious space forces. The eventual goal: to break nature's ultimate speed limit, the speed of light, and travel to other stars.

"Every genuine breakthrough starts out -- sounding a little wacko at first," Millis says. The trick, he adds, is sorting out the crazy ideas that might work from the crazy ideas that stay crazy.

He discovered that wasn't so easy. Millis spent a lot of time wading through a fringe world of junk scientists and paranoid lunatics. His program gave $650,000 in grants to study five controversial physics ideas. Now, it's out of funding and Millis, who has a bachelor's degree in physics, may head back to school.

NASA asked Millis to start BPP when its Advanced Space Transportation Program decided to investigate all space propulsion ideas, even the wildest ones. Millis had already written a paper about interstellar space-drive ideas and the physics breakthroughs they'd require. His Web site, Warp Drive When? (, explains what theoretical physics has to say about science fiction's quick trips from star to star.

"It might be impossible," Millis admits. "Should we still work on [it]? We learn interesting things along the way."

Millis launched BBP at a 1997 professional conference where true believers in pseudo-physics tussled with skeptical scientists. "There was mainstream stuff," he says. "I contrasted it deliberately with stuff that was more of a stretch." For example, some Russian researchers pitching an anti-gravity device made up of magnets spinning inside gyroscope-like contraptions were discredited when they failed to provide good sensor data or even pictures of their device.

Once NASA started exploring such outré ±uestions, a lot of freaky people got excited. BPP got almost 100 correspondences a year from people "whose submissions show delusions or paranoia," Millis says. He had to ward off the same junk-science proposals over and over: "anti-gravity" gizmos made of foil and copper wire or "oscillation thrusters," boxes that move across the ground because of friction when weights spin unevenly inside them.

Meanwhile, he and a corps of volunteers sifted through dozens of proposals and chose five to fund.

One looked at a shadowy, theoretical phenomenon called vacuum energy. When two electrically conductive metal plates stand a thousandth of a millimeter or so apart, Millis explains, they squeeze out electromagnetic vibrations whose wavelengths are bigger than the gap between them. With less energy inside the plates than outside, the plates push together.

Optimists hope vacuum energy might be harnessed somehow. Some controversial theories suggest that it affects inertia and gravity, and might someday even send ships sailing through space without propellant. Skeptics say vacuum energy is too small to be of any use.

The experiment seemed to confirm the existence of vacuum energy, Millis says, and led to six scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals. But the concept is still controversial.

So are the "gravity modification" experiments with superconductors at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, one of which BPP funded. The experiments tested the hotly disputed claims of Russian scientist Evgeny Podkletnov, who said that when he used magnets to suspend a superconducting disc in the air, then spun the disc, it lost weight, defying the law of gravity. The BPP-funded test moved superconductors next to a dumbbell-like weight and shined radio-frequency emissions on them to see if gravity behaved differently. But the tests were inconclusive because the emissions caused false readings in the engineers' instruments ? a cautionary lesson for others doing similar research.

Lawrence Krauss, chairman of the Case Western Reserve University physics department, whose book "The Physics of Star Trek" looked at some of the same questions as BPP, attended the first BPP conference and argued that the fantastic propulsion ideas bounced around there would never work. He says he wouldn't have funded any of BPP's five projects. "They either look like nonsense or research that is so marginal as to not be significant," he says.

The BPP's money is better spent on theoretical physics than lab experiments, Krauss argues. Experimenting now, without a solid theoretical base, is like trying to build an airplane in the 16th century, before people knew Newton's laws, he says. Besides, the breakthroughs in physics theory that an interstellar space drive would require may never be possible. Krauss and many other scientists believe we won't ever travel faster than light.

Millis counters that BPP produced 11 papers in scientific journals, which shows its research has merit. Still, he says he values "constructive skeptics" like Krauss. He even asked Krauss to head the review committee for future BPP grants.

But the program's funding ran out early this year after a budget reorganization. Millis says a NASA headquarters official conceded that it was "something NASA should be doing, but we just don't have the funding."

The Ohio Aerospace Institute, a non-profit affiliated with N

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