NASA May Upend Space Travel With Experimental Research

em drive nasa space deep field
A colorful deep space image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, as seen in a NASA handout from June 3, 2014. REUTERS/NASA/ESA/Handout via Reuters

NASA's Sonny White and his collaborators have published experimental confirmation that the so-called EM drive produces thrust. If this technology fulfills its promise, it will transform public and private space exploration and may have even broader implications for terrestrial power and energy.

Their paper explains why this work is important with typically understated academic language: "For missions with very large delta-v requirements, having a propellant consumption rate of zero could offset the higher power requirements." Let me say it another way for everyone else: wouldn't it be great to travel in space as fast as you want without even using fuel?

The what-ifs that these questions inspire in us are why we find technology at the edge of science fiction so appealing. I suspect that they also inspire the engineers at Eagleworks. Narratives about our future break us free from the tyranny of everyday life and give us permission to imagine a better future for ourselves and the world, if only briefly. That's part of the appeal of Star Trek and other optimistic takes on the future. It's little wonder that White's advanced propulsion research provided the real-world basis for the spacecraft in the current Star Trek reboot.

This paper isn't classified. It's in the public domain. This knowledge is for everyone, thanks to the democratic principles on which our nation was founded and that continue to enable the U.S. to lead the world in research in science and technology. And they make NASA the extraordinary agency it is. Public funding is central to any effort like space exploration. We have to pull together—yes, pay our taxes—to support work where there's no short-term profit to be had and yet so much long-term benefit to be realized.

We want a NASA that pushes the limits, rejects staid ideas, and is immune from cynical pork-barrel politics. That's not always what we get, but more often than not, NASA's technology innovations change the game. If a warp drive or anything else from the world of science fiction ever becomes real, it will likely be thanks to NASA-sponsored research.

Is the EM drive one of these? I suppose that as an academic, I am expected to counsel everyone to proceed with caution. We don't know exactly why this strange device appears to propel itself by bouncing electromagnetic waves around inside a closed cavity. I should remind people that the basic idea of the EM drive violates the fundamental principle of conservation of momentum. I should point out that White's speculation that the radio-frequency energy in the EM drive interacts with the quantum vacuum has not been confirmed in peer-reviewed research. In response to their claim that there is no experimental reason why this should not work, I should say something like, "absence of proof is not proof of absence."

And I should point out that we've been burned before. Remember "cold fusion" from the 1980s? Remember more recently, in 2011, when CERN startled the world by announcing that its scientists had detected a particle traveling faster than light? The internet exploded with enthusiastic designs for faster-than-light spacecraft. It turned out that CERN's measurements weren't perfect, and the fiber-optic timing system had just enough unexpected error to lead them to this false conclusion. So, we don't have faster-than-light technology—yet.

But I'm just not that kind of academic. In my own research, I much prefer "yes if" to "no because." In other words, incremental advances of mature technology are all well and good. They're essential. But like so many other engineers, I'm also interested in revolutionary discoveries. If we don't bother to look, we won't make those discoveries.

To ensure that we're not fooling ourselves, we check and double-check one another's work. Only when there's undeniable evidence through repeated, independent, experimental observations do we conclude that we know the truth. The Eagleworks folks are fully aware of this practice. In response to earlier criticisms, their paper offers a detailed assessment of where experimental errors may lurk. They reason away each one of them.

There may well be more reasons that they haven't thought of, but that's why we have a process of peer review. Carl Sagan would remind us that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I hope that other researchers try to replicate this result. After all, it took the world a long time to understand that the Earth is round, that it orbits the Sun, that species evolve, that microbes cause disease, that the speed of light is constant, and that our human activities are warming Earth's climate. But we know all of that now, thanks to the continuous, rigorous grind of scientific inquiry.

The need for rigorous technology development despite the likelihood of failure is one the reasons that I supported the advanced-technology work of NASA during my time as the agency's chief technologist a few years ago. That advocacy was particularly difficult during the sequestration-related budgetary conflicts between the White House and Congress. It's too easy to sacrifice the long term to solve short-term problems. But we're fortunate that NASA has kept this sort of work going.

Through its Space Technology Mission Directorate, Advanced Exploration Systems program, and myriad technology programs focused on science instrumentation, NASA continues to push the limits. If we don't fail from time to time, we're not pushing hard enough. We owe it to our future to support NASA as it keeps up the pace of discovery despite how rare these revolutionary successes may be.

Mason Peck is an associate professor at Cornell University and NASA's former chief technologist.