Sci-Fi Reality: Interstellar Travel May Be on the Horizon

Marc Millis spoke last Thursday at the Great Lakes Science Center before the Omnimax screening of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. Millis runs an organization called Tau Zero — devoted to accelerating progress toward actual interstellar flight — and he's part of a speaker series which brings in notable area physicists before the Omnimax screenings. Interstellar plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings until Feb. 14. We got to hear Millis' dynamite presentation last week and caught up with him by phone from his home in Dayton a couple days later. He does his best to dumb down some of the mind-blowing theories at the heart of Nolan's film and puts current research in perspective.

Sam Allard: You've got a 440 number. Are you from Cleveland originally?

Marc Millis: I used to work at NASA Glenn.

SA: What'd you do there?

MM: Propulsion physicist. I led what was called the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project.

SA: I can't even begin to imagine. What'd you do?

MM: Instead of looking at further advancing technology, it looked back at existing physics and new discoveries to explore such possibilities as faster-than-light flight, what we called 'space drives,' for lack of anything better, and means of propelling spacecraft without using rockets or light sails. It was all kinds of magical stuff that would require mastery over inertia and gravitational forces.

SA: Sounds like straight sci-fi.

MM: Yeah, well. In short, that stuff ceased to be science fiction around 1988 to 1997, when they were studied more rigorously in peer-reviewed journals. And we're at the point where, using the scientific method analogy, we've completed steps one and two. We know to ask the smart questions now. We've defined the problem. We just need to gather the information, but we're way off from knowing if these things are even possible or how to make them possible.

SA: And what's the problem, as you understand it? Traveling great galactic distances without taking centuries to do it?

MM: Yep.

SA: What are you doing down in Dayton?

MM: The technical answer is I'm a Jones Faculty Researcher at the Air Force Institute of Technology and also a visiting scholar at the Ohio Aerospace Institute. But I'm not really doing that much with the Air Force.

SA: So Tau Zero?

MM: Yes. And the past few years have been pretty grueling. I was pretty good at doing scientific networking and figuring out the next steps and all that research stuff, but running an organization was much harder. I'm looking for someone to take over the management, so I can get back to the content.

SA: "Accelerating progress" in the interstellar department?

MM: The organization's motto is ad astra incrementis, which is a philosophy that says "to the stars in ever increasing steps." To really make any progress we have to determine what can we really do today to chip away at this.

SA: Fundraising, I assume?

MM: We've done networking primarily. If we had more funding, we would probably support scholarships.

SA: Talk to me about the film. How intense was it at the Omnimax?

MM: It was actually too intense for me to keep my eyes open all the time, especially with all the close-ups and camera motions that there were. But the scene of the wormhole and some of the spacecraft motion things were really cool.

SA: There's been some talk of the film's scientific accuracy. Any glaring mistakes you saw?

MM: The one inaccuracy that bugged the heck out of me was that in the beginning of the film, the spaceship, that they later used to go down and back up from planets again and again, had to take an entire Saturn 5 to get it off the surface of the Earth, which is a reasonable amount of propellant for something of that mass. But then it seemed to get by for the rest of the film without any propellant at all! That's such a common mistake. What they got right was the gravitational situations onboard, the degree of time change because of relativistic effects near a black hole. And the visuals of the wormhole were excellent. The way they presented it made it very easy to grasp.

SA: This may be stupid, but do wormholes exist?

MM: That's the paper from 1988. Kip Thorne wrote it with a graduate student. It was the first ever paper which presented the idea of traversable wormholes. The background story is that Carl Sagan came to Kip Thorne when he was working on the novel Contact looking for a plausible way that characters could pass through enormous distances in a reasonable time. The ideas of wormholes and black holes were already in the literature, but making them something that you could move through — they were the first ones to do that.

SA: And could you give me a layman's idea of how that would work?

MM: The analogy for the wormhole comes from Matt Visser: To create a one-meter wormhole, you'd have to take the entire mass of the planet Jupiter, and convert it to its equivalent energy, have that energy be negative and then somehow shape it into something with a one-meter diameter. That sets it in a scale which has a dose of reality behind it.

SA: Will this occur in our lifetimes, do you think?

MM: For normal motion through space, the likelihood is that the technology will be ready before we've accumulated enough fuel to make it happen. The estimates for how long it would take to get that energy — in this case in the form of Helium-3 for fusion reactions — are about 200 years. But that's extremely rough.

SA: Aren't the physics folks at CWRU working on some of this stuff?

MM: Case has a robust department. ... Lawrence Krauss, the author of the book The Physics of Star Trek, used to be in the department there. Of the physics that goes on there, the stuff I used to know the most about was their dark matter searches and studies of cosmic background radiation.

SA: Gosh, I wish I had a deeper background here.

MM: You can always go to! There's a post Monday through Friday and a very active, moderated forum on all this stuff.

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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