Steps to the Stars: First things first.

(article from Final Frontier, Jan/Feb issue) REF:

Later in 1997, the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics program will host an invitation-only workshop. At the gathering, scientists will examine relevant emerging physics. They will also brainstorm a list of next-step research tasks, says NASA's Millis.

To be surveyed are a host of theories, physical evidence and anomalous effects that have recently emerged but have not yet been rigorously assessed.

"There have been recent theories published in peer-reviewed literature suggesting new connections between inertia, gravity and electromagnetism. There's even a theory for a 'warp drive,' but physicists aren't even sure if such breakthroughs are possible," Millis says.

"If the workshop successfully demonstrates that promising and affordable approaches exist," he continues. "funding may be granted to begin conducting the step-by-step research that may eventually lead to the breakthroughs."

In other words, while you're reaching for the stars, don't forget to stoop for a little reality.

If you want to get anywhere fast in this old universe, there arc three technologies required for 21 st century space missions. "These technologies are propulsion, propulsion and propulsion," points out Robert Frisbee, manager of advanced propulsion technology at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Moreover, physics today is teeming with conjecture showing us that scientists clearly don't know everything. Frisbee says that the physics community is rife with people studying time machines, wormholes and warp drives by looking at Albert Einstein's equations and putting them through the ringer.

"These are things we used to think of as solely the province of science fiction," with work now being done by reputable physicists, publishing in peer-reviewed journals, the JPL scientist says.

A member of the breakthrough propulsion physics product definition team, Frisbee underscores the fact that studying such topics as faster-than-light travel, leaping across space and time via wormhole, anti-gravity and other research tracks, is a high risk activity.

"But in terms of trying to get us out of our existing paradigm, this type of work is very important. The payoff could totally revolutionize the way we look at nature, in the same way that relativity and quantum mechanics changed the way we looked at the universe almost a hundred years ago," Frisbee contends.

Coupled to his optimism, Frisbee tags a note of warning. "You have to be careful of situations where you get into 'pathological science.' That is when you ate trying to treasure some tiny, tiny effect, but where wishful thinking gives you the answer and not the actual experiment," he cautions.

What are the odds of discovering some radical, new form of physics'? "Chances are very high we won't find anything," says Franklin Mead, Jr.. senior scientist in the propulsion sciences division of the Air Force's Phillips Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base, California. "But there's also that very small chance of stumbling on something that will have a very large payoff. It's important to look for that needle in the haystack...that diamond in the rough that hasn't been found. But it's very difficult to succeed," Mead says.

Also a member of NASA's breakthrough propulsion physics product definition team, Mead has funded a variety of advanced propulsion ideas over the years. From anti-proton propulsion, space warps, beamed energy and fusion rockets to space tethers and faster- than-light travel- all have received top billing on Mead's research list at one time or another.

"You have to keep need to turn over every rock," Mead says. Furthermore, as new materials become available, these ideas, and others, deserve second looks from time to time, he stresses.

"We're really not spending much money on advanced concepts. When you talk about dollars going into this area that could have such a great impact on space travel, on propulsion and on the future of our world in space...the investment is minuscule," Mead says.

Walk into Whitt Brantley's office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and you will spot a picture of his idol adorning one wall: Albert Einstein. Brantley, chief of the advanced concepts office at the center, has good reason to go eye to eye with Einstein. NASA-sponsored experiments will soon delve into, what one scientist tags, "gravity force shielding commonly called antigravity.

But Brantley fends off any claim that NASA is looking into anti-gravity. Instead, gravity manipulation, modification or shielding are more apropos terms, he says.

NASA is working with theorist Ning Li of the University of Alabama at Huntsville Equipment and test mater ials arc being prepped for a set of experiments that could, if successful, lead to new knowledge about gravity fields. If Li's ideas work, modifying and controlling gravity may be the outcome.

Researchers in 1992 at the Tampere University of Technology in Finland first claimed to observe a gravity force shielding effect. Leading the work, Russian scientist Eugene Podkletnov discovered that objects suspended over a rapidly spinning disc of superconducting ceramic material weighed less than normal-as if the object was somehow being shielded from the full force of gravity. More importantly, the faster the superconductor spun, the less an object over the superconducting material appeared to weigh.

Placed above the disc were nonconducting and non-magnetic objects made of wood, quartz or glass. The superconducting disc itself a material that forfeits its electrical resistance at very low temperatures-was suspended by a magnetic field produced by three electric coils. All the hardware was held within the confines of a super- cold container of liquid helium.

Several head-scratching scientists believe they are eyeing a side effect of Einstein's general theory of relativity rapidly spinning objects can pervert gravity.

Some scientists assert that they're producing a "gravitomagnetic field." But some publications have already declared the effect as "anti-gravity."

Whether or not the phenomenon is real, measurable and then controllable is yet to be determined. Whatever the case, many months of tedious painstaking work is ahead, Brantley cautions.

"We've got open minds," Brantley says. "It's sort of like playing the lottery. The only way to guarantee you won't win a lottery is not buy a ticket. We would sure feel foolish if we didn't study this, then have someone say later on: 'It was found 100 years ago, but the idiots didn't recognize it. "

If the effect is real, the implications could be staggering, both for near-term and far-future space travel ala Star Trek. "In the far-term, if you could manipulate gravity fields, you could put a strong field in front of you and a weak field behind you. That would mean you could literally fall forward with propellant-less propulsion," Brantley envisions.

NASA chief: Daniel Goldin, puts on a "who knows?" shrug-of-the- shoulders stance when asked about the space agency inquiring into the effect. As long as NASA scientists don't spend too much money, and the work and findings are peer-reviewed, he's supportive.

Goldin tells Final Frontier: "Continued work to discern the true physics behind the effect is clearly needed. The NASA and Ning Li look-see will be in full swing early this year."

"Whatever the results of the experiments, they will become part of the breakthrough propulsion physics program." says Millis of the Lewis Research Center. The first order of business is to identify what is really going on. Then Millis and his group will determine if they can harness the effect for a propulsion force.

While not discounting the phenomenon, Millis says: "This is not the only egg in the basket. We want to look at all the possibilities, weighing all the divergent and competing approaches."

If Millis has his way, stand by for the corrected 20/20 view of the future.

The vision: A space enterprise far more capable than today's for reaching more destinations faster and with greater autonomy nothing short of human travel to the stars.

Into the future-Dreaming of star travel is the first step to get us going the right direction and at the right speed. NASA's Marc Millis designed and built this model of a star cruiser.

Gravity of the situation - Above, while firmly attached to Earth, NASA scientists at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama experiment with gravity shielding-known in common terms as anti-gravity. From left are Tony Robertson, Neil Tyson, Whitt Brantley David Noever, Jerald Oakly, Ronald Koczor and Ning Li, the theoretical physicist behind the work.