On Foundation-Building and Starflight

by Marc Millis

Welcome to the birth of a new foundation. Using the dream of reaching other worlds as a long-range goal and a catalyst for near-term progress, the Tau Zero Foundation supports incremental advancements in science, technology, and education. As a private nonprofit (501c3) corporation, supported mainly through philanthropic donations, the Foundation seeks out and directs support to the best practitioners who can make credible progress toward this incredible goal and educate the public during this journey of discovery.


The enormous benefits of practical interstellar flight should be obvious. Not only would this free humanity from having just one safe haven, Earth, but the technological spin-offs would be profound. Imagine the consequences, where breakthroughs in transportation, energy conversion, and sustainable habitats would be realized on Earth as well as for expanding human presence beyond Earth. These technologies could answer a wide range of human needs.

Presently however, some of the world’s most reputable thinkers deem practical interstellar flight to be impossible, and they might very well be right. Conceding defeat, however, does not inspire progress. Even if the ultimate challenges are impossible, there is value in the attempt. Aiming for impossible goals forces thinking beyond mere extrapolation of existing achievements. It presents a provocative challenge to spur discoveries that others aren’t even looking for. It provides a different perspective from which to ponder the lingering mysteries of science. It gives an inspirational theme around which to educate the public about the opportunities and methods of reasoned discovery. And culturally, it helps remind us that we share a common humanity, temporarily stranded together on our one small planet Earth, to encourage us to behave more responsibly. Finally, given the indefinitely long time scales of interstellar flight, it gives us a role model for breaking away from the trappings of instant gratification.


The Tau Zero Foundation will establish itself as the dependable venue through which the visionary goals of interstellar flight can be advanced through imagination coupled with intellectual rigor. The allure of undiscovered breakthroughs will be used to inspire and educate the public, and in turn, these educational ventures will promote the Foundation. To advance science and technology, the Foundation will channel financial support to credible risk-takers within legitimate establishments, selected largely through competitive processes. To stay poised for capitalizing on ancillary benefits, the most promising developments will be aimed toward revenue-generating products and services.

Although academia advances the underlying science and technology, it seldom risks exploring the highly speculative ideas of interstellar flight. Even though various organizations advance space exploration, these typically cater to near-term challenges. While science fiction inspires, it is conveyed as entertainment rather than for deliberately provoking progress. And finally, although there are Internet groups touting spaceflight breakthroughs, these lack credibility and correspondingly degrade the overall legitimacy of the pursuit.

Regarding the philanthropic model, there are precedents. Both the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and Biosphere obtained considerably more funds through philanthropy than from the expected sponsor – government. In fact, SETI, a canceled NASA project, has been faring better since it became independent. Furthermore, there is evidence of a cultural change underway with regard to space exploration. Wealthy individuals such as Paul Allen, Sir Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are supporting their own space ventures. While they focus on near-term gains, this Foundation provides a reliable outlet through which wealthy individuals can support the far-future quests as well.


The creative driving force behind this effort is Marc G. Millis, who co-founded “Vision-21” within Lewis Research Center (1990-1994), served as an advisor and editor for the Interstellar Propulsion Society (1995), and founded and led NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project (1996-2002). This Project looked at such controversial topics as gravity control, space drives, faster-than-light travel, and vacuum energy, and did so in a credible and efficient manner. For a total investment of less than $1.6M spread over 7 years, this project produced 14 peer-reviewed journal articles, addressed 8 different research approaches, posted an award winning web site, and garnered over 100 positive press articles for NASA. As a normal part of his operating strategy, Millis routinely pursues collaborations wherever possible. Such a strategy and the established network of collaborators will make for a more efficient and effective Foundation.

The following accomplished scientists, engineers, and journalists have already committed to contributing their talents. As the scout for the nearer-term interstellar options, Gregory Matloff, of the New York City College of Technology and a Hayden Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History, will be participating. Matloff co-authored the seminal book The Starflight Handbook (1989) followed by Deep Space Probes (2nd ed. 2005) and consults for NASA and others on the technologies for interstellar probes. An antimatter and nuclear propulsion expert is Steven Howe, Director of the Center for Space Nuclear Studies in Idaho Falls. Another propulsion expert is Martin Tajmar, author of Advanced Space Propulsion Systems (2003) and Head of Space Propulsion research for ARC Seibersdorf Research in Austria. The lead journalist for the Foundation is Paul Gilster, who recently published an overview of interstellar ambitions, Centauri Dreams (2004), and who continues to post interstellar news on his Centauri Dreams website.

Dana Andrews (Andrews Space, Inc.) brings to the Foundation expertise on space sails and numerous contributions in aerospace engineering. Geoffrey Landis (NASA GRC) is a physicist and science fiction writer with extensive background in interstellar issues. Space scientist Claudio Maccone (Alenia Spazio) has long championed interstellar studies and is the creative force behind FOCAL, a mission concept to reach the Sun’s gravity lens. Both Jean-Luc Cambier (Propulsion Directorate, Edwards Air Force Base) and Brice Cassenti (Pratt & Whitney) are experts in advanced space propulsion, while Eric Davis (Institute for Advanced Studies, Austin) brings expertise in exotic concepts like the warp drive. Physicist Bill Harter (University of Arkansas) is a specialist in special relativity and wave mechanics.

Other names key to the foundation’s success include antimatter specialist Gerald Jackson (Hbar Technologies); physicist Jordin Kare (Kare Consulting); Frank Mead (Propulsion Directorate, Edwards Air Force Base); astronautical engineering consultant Gerald Nordley; aerospace engineer Mike LaPointe (NASA MSFC); physicists Ed Zampino (NASA GRC) and Bill Meyer (GRC and Scattering Solutions LLC); physicist Jordan Maclay (Quantum Fields, LLC); Lt. Col. Tim Lawrence (US Air Force Academy); engineer Sonny White (NASA Johnson Space Center) and information technologist Jon Hujsak (Neotopica Inc.).

The Foundation also draws upon the work of graphic artist and journalist Alexandre Szames, along with journalists Ian Brown, Larry Klaes and Leonard David, to bring its work to the public. For fundraising and entrepreneurial guidance, Walter de Brouwer is participating. Founder of more that 40 companies including 2 international IPO’s, Time and CNN dubbed him a ‘serial entrepreneur.’ Walter also served on the program board of MIT’s Media Lab, but his most applicable adventure was Starlab, which brought together accomplished risk-takers from a variety of disciplines to collaborate on problems of infinite horizons. Legal council is provided by Frank Nagorney, a specialist in small business and a principal of Cowden Humphrey Nagorney & Lovett Co.


Much of the groundwork is already being set. Some research and outreach is already happening in small fragments scattered across the world, albeit to a very limited degree. But is this enough? On something as important as giving humanity a future beyond the bounds of Earth, shouldn’t we be doing more? By using the daunting challenge of a seemingly impossible goal, we could very well discover what mundane researchers will overlook. And what if the impossible is possible? If so, it is certain to happen sooner than the pessimists believe. That is the way of pessimists. The Tau Zero Foundation is being established to support a network of rational visionaries who are willing to tackle the impossible and produce value along the way. When our Web site is ready and we are ready to accept general memberships, we hope you will join us and support this work. We all have a common goal: To give humanity a future worth working toward.

Tau Zero Foundation Announced

Last February, Centauri Dreams described the formation of a new foundation, a private nonprofit (501c3) corporation dedicated to supporting the advances in science, technology and education that may one day enable us to reach the stars. Conceived by Marc Millis, former head of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics program, the foundation aims to support a carefully chosen group of researchers whose work is directed at this goal. On that occasion, I described the fledgling foundation’s need for a name and asked for comments from readers. Now that the choice has been made and the necessary legal work accomplished, it’s time to announce the advent of the Tau Zero Foundation.

Inspired by the Poul Anderson novel of the same name and seconded by a number of readers, Tau Zero seemed a natural fit. Tau refers to the Greek letter representing proper time in relativistic equations. Tau Zero refers to what happens when one approaches light-speed and one’s proper time shrinks compared to the surrounding universe. Thus the premise of the Anderson novel, as an interstellar craft unable to stop accelerating takes an inadvertent grand tour of the cosmos. Anderson, who passed away in 2001, remains highly regarded as a science fiction writer whose work reflects sound and thoughtful science. He wrote often of interstellar flight and is believed to have inspired many students to become scientists and engineers. In February 2006, his widow, Karen Anderson, granted permission for the Foundation to use this name as well as joining the Foundation as one of its advocates herself.

Centauri Dreams‘ next post will be a statement by foundation founder Marc Millis discussing the goals and composition of the organization. An older background statement with more detail about the group’s structure is available, and all these documents will be be updated when the foundation’s Web site becomes operational. The Tau Zero Foundation is still in its infancy, but Centauri Dreams will continue to report on its growth and progress as events warrant. And as the foundation grows, this site will grow with it, continuing to report on developments in interstellar science that may bring the grand goal just a little closer.

A final thought: the motto of the foundation is ad astra incrementis. The Latin word incrementis is the root of English ‘incremental,’ a fitting thought given the nature of the challenge. Translated literally, ad astra incrementis means ‘to the stars in steps, with each step larger than the last.’ Going to the stars is not likely to be the result of a single breakthrough, but rather thousands of small, incremental discoveries that build upon each other.

The goal of the Tau Zero Foundation is to ensure that those early steps are taken now, so that some day people working with technologies far more advanced than our own may complete the work of reaching nearby stars and giving humanity the means to thrive beyond Earth. If that is a future most of us may never live to see, it is enough to know that we played some role in bringing it about.

Correction on a Plutonian Moon

Centauri Dreams incorrectly identified the name of one of the new Plutonian moons yesterday as Nyx. The actual name is Nix, as witness this statement from the International Astronomical Union, quoting Oddbjørn Engvold, general secretary of the organization:

“In Greek mythology, Nyx is the goddess of the night, but since asteroid 3908 already bears the Greek name Nyx, we changed Nyx to its Egyptian equivalent, Nix. Hydra was a nine-headed serpent with poisonous blood that had its den at the entrance to Hades, where Pluto and his wife Persephone entered the Underworld.”

Also on the IAU’s agenda at its General Assembly in Prague in late August is a looming question: what is the proper definition of a planet? Pluto’s planetary status is clearly at stake, as is that of 2003 UB313, the 10th ‘planet’ known unofficially as Xena. The Centauri Dreams take is that anything Pluto-sized and over is a planet, and if we wind up with a Solar System of 35 planets, most of them in the Kuiper Belt, so be it. But those who favor more economical systems may prefer eight planets surrounded by large chunks of debris. The IAU has the call.

Naming Names Around Pluto

Centauri Dreams is told that one reason the name Pluto was chosen for the ninth planet in our Solar System is that the first two letters formed the initials of Percival Lowell. The Boston-born astronomer became world famous for his studies of the so-called ‘canals’ on Mars, but he devoted the last years of his life to the search for Planet X, a world he was convinced must exist. Dying in 1916, Lowell wasn’t around to celebrate Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto some fourteen years later.

In my mind, names play a role not dissimilar from the collapse of the wave function in some versions of quantum mechanics. Perform an observation and from a superposition of states you get a hard data-point. In a similar way, give something a name (see Bradbury’s “The Naming of Names”) and you make a vaguely understood object or place concrete. We’ll get more concrete still with Pluto and its various moons when the New Horizons mission gets there and we start naming craters and peaks.

But we didn’t have to wait for New Horizons to name the two small Plutonian moons discovered last year. The International Astronomical Union has chosen the name Nyx for the inner satellite, an homage to the mother of Charon, Pluto’s largest moon. The outer moon is now named Hydra, a monster whose nine heads remind us of Pluto’s place within our system. And exercising just as much care as was originally applied to the naming of Pluto, the first letters of Nyx and Hydra honor the initials of New Horizons itself.

Pluto and its moons

Image: Hydra and Nix, roughly 5,000 times fainter than Pluto, are about two to three times as far from Pluto as its large moon, Charon. The brighter, outer small satellite, Hydra, was provisionally named S/2005 P 1, and the fainter, inner small satellite, Nix, was provisionally named S/2005 P 2. Credit: NASA/STScI.

“We’re very pleased with the decision of the IAU,” says co-leader of the discovery team and New Horizons principal investigator Dr. Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute. “You’re going to be hearing a lot more about Nix and Hydra in coming years — astronomers are already applying for telescope time to study their orbits and physical properties. And when New Horizons flies by Pluto in the summer of 2015, each will be mapped in detail.”

Are more moons waiting for New Horizons to find? We’ll know by 2015, some 99 years after the death of Percival Lowell. Astronomy demands patience and an exquisite eye for detail, as Lowell surely knew from his long nights on the job, and it probably wouldn’t have surprised him that it would take almost half a century after the discovery of Pluto to find Charon, and another 27 years to locate Nyx and Hydra. The near resonant orbits of the latter two satellites in the same plane as Charon indicate a common origin for all three moons and back the notion that they were formed in an enormous impact.

Cryopreservation: The Slow Way to Centauri

Slowing down the biological clock is one way to get to the stars. And it’s a leading trope of science fiction, this idea that if we can’t find faster ways to travel beyond our Solar System, we can at least shorten the journey for the crew, who will wake up decades (or centuries) after departure in orbit around their destination. Cryopreservation is one approach to slowing the clock, but it’s always been plagued by the problem of tissue damage. For although some kinds of tissues can be frozen and revived, others succumb to damage from ice crystals that destroy the delicate structure of the cells.

New work at the University of Helsinki, however, offers a sudden gleam of hope on the cryopreservation front. There, researcher Anatoli Bogdan has been working with a form of water called ‘glassy water,’ and in particular a form of it known as low-density amorphous ice. It’s produced by supercooling diluted aqueous droplets, and it melts into what is known as highly viscous water (HVW).

Let’s untangle some of these terms. When you cool liquid water very quickly, the molecules don’t form into their normal crystal lattice. Instead, they become randomly oriented like the atoms of common glass, hence the term ‘glassy water.’ Keep cooling the result, as by the accumulation of μm-sized water droplets onto a metal surface cooled to below 120 K, and you can get low-density amorphous ice (LDA). The important point here is that melting LDA is more viscous than normal water, and now we can pick up what Anatoli Bogdan has to say about it in an American Chemical Society news release. It’s significant because no crystalization occurs in this process:

“It may seem fantastic, but the fact that in aqueous solution, [the] water component can be slowly supercooled to the glassy state and warmed back without the crystallization implies that, in principle, if the suitable cryoprotectant is created, cells in plants and living matter could withstand a large supercooling and survive,” Bogdan says.

And he follows with this startling conclusion:

“Damage of the cells occurs due to the extra-cellular and intra-cellular ice formation which leads to dehydration and separation into the ice and concentrated unfrozen solution. If we could, by slow cooling/warming, supercool and then warm the cells without the crystallization of water then the cells would be undamaged.”

Will cryopreservation become realistic? if so, the most intriguing possibilities are medical, including, of course, another long-standing science fiction trope, the idea of preserving someone with a deadly disease until such time as the disease can be cured. As a means of survival on a long interstellar journey, though, cryopreservation has to be weighed against the idea of the ‘world ship,’ a vast vessel in which generations live and die during the course of the voyage.

The latter makes a much greater demand on resources, and both may ultimately be circumvented by faster propulsion technologies. But cryopreservation keeps open a possibility that has intrigued interstellar thinkers for over a century, and there seems to be no reason to believe that the technology won’t one day become available.

Bogdan’s work is slated for publication in the July 6 issue of the Journal of Physical Chemistry B, a publication of the American Chemical Society.