The Latest on the Tau Zero Foundation

by Paul Gilster on August 23, 2006

by Marc Millis

Centauri Dreams is pleased to report again on the status of the Tau Zero Foundation. Founded by Marc Millis, former head of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics program, the Foundation’s goal is to support credible research into interstellar flight, with a realistic understanding that incremental progress toward this goal can only be made through persistent, long-term effort. Here Millis describes the current state of affairs, and discusses the necessary next steps for the young Foundation.

For those awaiting the debut of the Tau Zero Foundation, I thought I would take this time to let you know how it will be implemented. The first stage, setting up the basic operation and a pool of expert practitioners, is already happening. From the combined work of our practitioners we will debut a public website that explains the status of this work and the next practical steps to be taken toward interstellar flight. At that same time will be ready to accept general memberships.

Once the public website has become established and member donations grow, the means to invite research proposals over the Internet will be developed. Any solicitations, however, will be contingent upon the third stage – of having obtained sufficient philanthropic donations to support a suite of research tasks.

Meanwhile, the network of Foundation practitioners will continue its own work toward practical interstellar flight and through its progress and collaborations, the content on the public website will become more refined and up-to-date. One goal is to explain, in general public terms, the why, how, who and when of real interstellar flight.

Another goal is to identify, for students and other budding researchers, the next-step unknowns in need of solution. It is hoped that, by providing such information from reliable, visionary sources, students will have the tools to begin legitimate inquires on their own. As things progress, we would be pleased to hear from students how we could better serve their learning needs.

Your patience is appreciated. This will be a long term endeavor for the greater good of humanity.

For the time being, the Tau Zero Foundation will not be able to review any submissions. Even when the website is online, there will be strict submission requirements. If, after the public website has debuted, you find any errors or missing relevant information, please bring that to our attention. Such information will have to be traceable to work already published in the peer-reviewed literature. Other websites, conference papers, or personal theories are not suitable submissions.

Background information and previous postings about the Tau Zero Foundation are available on Centauri Dreams. We look forward to embarking on this enterprise and will keep you informed on the Foundation’s progress every step of the way.

{ 22 comments }

Dennis August 23, 2006 at 19:03

Thank’s a lot for the information. And yes, I am a student also!

Eric James August 23, 2006 at 23:42

Is this going to be similar to The Gravity Research Foundation?

http://www.gravityresearchfoundation.org/

Edward August 24, 2006 at 3:03

Great news. I hope this foundation catches the eye of a philanthropist with the means to make things happen.

Marc Millis August 24, 2006 at 7:32

About the “Gravity Research Foundation:” As I understand it, this foundation only conducts annual essay contests for which the winners get cash awards. The Tau Zero Foundation is a network of practitioners who collaborate to accelerate overall progress, plus, when sufficient funds are secured, will award research grants through a competitive process.

Bob Shaw August 25, 2006 at 20:31

I hope there is a discursive, albeit moderated, element to the T0F – many significant contributions may be made that way. Similarly, I hope that live referencs and discussions are made to the such not-quite-professional (but highly regarded) contributions as many of those in the JBIS Interstellar Exploration papers.

Eric James August 26, 2006 at 5:16

I often wonder if research into many of these highly hypothetical concepts is nothing more than an intellectual version of “The Peter Principle.” That being: “In a hierarchy, everyone tends to rise to his own level of incompetence.”

The Fermi paradox also comes to mind. If it can be done, then where are all the spacefaring civilizations? Where are the aliens?

I guess where I’m really heading is: Is this a good investment? Where does this organization start? Are there any current concepts that seem particularly promising? Who will own the patents?

Administrator August 26, 2006 at 13:58

I would be reluctant to use the Fermi Paradox as an argument against proceeding with interstellar research. Yes, it’s baffling, and we’re a long way from being able to answer the question Fermi posed. But many of the possible answers take into account the possibility of interstellar flight. My own thought, for what it’s worth, is that intelligent life is incredibly rare, and thus absence of evidence doesn’t surprise me.

We are looking at an extremely long-term project when we contemplate interstellar flight, even of the robotic kind. It is almost certain that it will not occur in our lifetimes (unless your name is Kurzweil) — Marc Millis has just discussed some of these issues at the astrodynamics conference in Princeton. We may well be looking at several centuries of needed work before we can launch anything so ambitious (though of course we all hope for the kind of breakthrough, perhaps in nanotech, that can change everything).

And if it does take centuries, it will happen because thousands of small steps were taken along the way. Which is why the Foundation’s motto is Ad Astra Incrementis — to the stars in incremental steps. We go one step at a time. Is the goal impossible? No one knows, but I do know this: the one way to make sure that interstellar flight *never* happens is to refuse to take those early steps. And if we don’t see the result — if it’s something only our great- great- great- great-grandchildren are around to witness — so be it.

Current concepts that excite me include work by Woodward and Tajmar especially, both of which we’ll be discussing soon, but research will have to occur along a broad front as ideas are refined, tested and sometimes excluded. Whether or not this makes for a good investment will have to be a matter for potential donors to decide, but I certainly call it one.

Eric James August 27, 2006 at 20:54

Well from what I’ve been able to gather on both effects, it seems that people are getting all excited over them without realizing the consequences of conservation on both.

The Woodward Effect concerns transient mass, but I don’t think it can work in a purely isolated system (at least not any better than a photon rocket).

The Tajmar Effect seems (on the face of it) to be a locally conserved phenomenon. That is that so far, I haven’t read a report that indicates a perferred direction for the effect.

In any event, I look forward to your future reports on these subjects.

Eric James August 27, 2006 at 21:01

Other than being founded by “serious researchers”, how is Tau Zero going to distinguih itself from the many “fringe” organizations espousing similar purposes?

Administrator August 28, 2006 at 9:34

I’ll defer to Marc Millis on that one, as he’s TZF’s founder.

One thing to add, though, is that while I mentioned my own interest in Woodward and Tajmar, there are numerous ways to go at interstellar propulsion issues without getting quite so exotic. Steve Howe’s fascinating antimatter sail concept, for example, builds on well understood physics and awaits an increase in antimatter production that seems feasible in the not so long term. Various proposals for study of antimatter-induced fusion fall into the same category; this is work that doesn’t produce sudden breakthroughs to full-scale interstellar flight, but builds incrementally on what we already know. So I think there is a case for patient research across a broad front toward the goal.

Marc Millis August 29, 2006 at 19:36

About Patents & Tau Zero… Although a primary way to identify ownership of inventions, Patents are no guarantee of viability and not the only option for establishing credit and protecting information. This is best handled on a case-by-case basis when the moment arises.

About comparisons to fringe groups… Watch them over time. Are their claims backed by testable evidence or traceable to reliable facts? Do they advance knowledge over time? Do they consider the full span of options, or only those that are sensationalistic? When Tau Zero is up and running, apply the same questions to us. I think the distinctions will be quite clear then. Progress, not hype.

One challenge facing the Foundation is to provide both a suite of reliable (scrubbed) information that the greater community can apply to their own studies, and the opportunity for experts and students that are outside the Foundation to update Foundation information and offer their own insights. Unfortunately, open forums such as Wikipedia attract “promotional” theories and simplistic responses when it comes to topics as provocative of breakthrough spaceflight. Options for dealing with this challenge are under consideration.

Eric James August 29, 2006 at 23:58

Well, we at least hope for progress…

I fear that the foundation will tend to focus excessively on exotic physics concepts rather than simply developing more plausible concepts to the level of practical application. I hope that practical interplanetary transportation system development might also be considered (a necessary step to the stars).

I think developing a system for handling the flow of information is likely to be the greatest start-up challenge. Good luck with that. Public relations also.

Marc Millis August 30, 2006 at 11:08

The Foundation does plan to cover the full spectrum, from the seemingly simple solar sails to the seemingly impossible faster-than-light travel. The intent is to take the steps as they can be dealt with. The steps are different depending on the maturity of the approach.

Eric James August 30, 2006 at 23:02

This sounds a lot like the NIAC approach. However, being privately funded, I would expect a greater pressure to show a practical benefit. Do you anticipate the potential for the foundation to become a commercial entity?

george scaglione September 24, 2006 at 19:12

nothing profound to say at this moment,just getting the mechanics of this place down as the new kid on the block!? always glad to hear anyones comments on space hope this leads to something great. regards george

J.J.Madson October 26, 2006 at 21:06

For FTL, it is not anti-gravity, it is pro-gravity.

Dispatcher July 11, 2007 at 2:10

Sounds like Heinlein’s Long Range Foundation (Time for the Stars). :-)

f July 18, 2007 at 0:09

Sounds rather like something the Long Now Foundation should be thinking about! Maybe can should get some publicity from them, at least.

http://www.longnow.org/

Pete November 22, 2007 at 13:18

Is there a website for this foundation now?

Has there been much progress?

Administrator November 22, 2007 at 17:15

Pete, the Web site for the foundation is nearly complete. I don’t have the ETA for public release but we’re getting close. When that announcement is made, I’ll also have, in addition to the press release, further news about the foundation and where it’s going. And yes, in answer to your second question, a lot of organizational work has been going on in the background for some time now. How TZF turns the corner into philanthropic funding for specific projects is something to be addressed after we get the site up.

george scaglione November 23, 2007 at 10:43

paul, please tell us all when the web site is up and running! i’d love to have a look! thank you and i hope you had a great turkey day! your friend george

Pete November 23, 2007 at 13:07

Sorry about the double posting- there’s a glitch in the server saying I didn’t have permission…

Anyways, I corresponded with Marc a few years ago about the structure such a non-profit should take. I thought his approach was too entrepreneurial, and risked trivializing the rigour and depth of the science involved. It’s important to be open when you’re soliciting private sector funds, but investors ought to know their place when it comes to the domain of hard science.

I haven’t reached the official donatable stage with my project yet, but I expect to have a web site of my own up in a matter of months- I’ll be sure to provide a link here.

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