by Marc G. Millis
Marc Millis, former head of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics program and founding architect of the Tau Zero Foundation, now gives us a look at the Foundation’s current status and his thoughts on where it’s going.
To those who have been waiting for the Tau Zero Foundation to begin in earnest, your patience is greatly appreciated. We are definitely making progress and this article describes that status.
For the readers of Centauri Dreams, the URL at the end of this article takes you to a sneak preview of our public website. Although the site is far from done (many corrections and additions still needed) enough content is there to give you an idea of what we’re delivering. Donations can now be accepted via the “support us” page (hint, hint). Yes, even modest donations speed up progress. We are, after all, still an all-volunteer effort, setting this up in addition to our day-jobs.
Stages of Implementation
Initially a network of volunteers, the Tau Zero Foundation’s practitioners will share their progress and insights with each other and on the public website. These practitioners have been selected to provide a complementary blend of disciplines (researchers, educators, journalists) and for their ability to deal with visionary subjects in a productively rigorous manner. Through these collaborations and by taking advantage of existing venues, occasional projects will be undertaken (books, documentaries, workshops). Once sufficient funding is secured, cycles of research will be supported, with a suite of tasks selected to advance a reasonable breadth of approaches. Within these, scholarships will also be offered to help promising students.
And where does Tau Zero stand in achieving its aims? Here are the envisioned stages of implementation. Right now, we are completing the Basics and moving onto our Debut, plus we’ve already started on some zero-cost opportunistic projects.
- Legal details and defining documents
- First tier practitioners signed up (over 3 dozen)
- Web presence constructed
Debut and Thereafter (assumes at least modest donations)
- Continually add/refine Web content from specialty practitioner contributions
- Devise means to identify and add new practitioners
- Shift from “donations” to “membership” contributions
- Tackle opportunistic projects (books, student design projects, documentaries, awards)
Scaling Up (after substantial donations)
- Strategically select public education projects/products
- Grant awards to those who have demonstrated the appropriate blend of vision and rigor in their work.
- Complete formal process for inviting and supporting research tasks.
Fully Functional (requires annual donations beyond $6 million)
- Inviting, selecting and supporting research
- Regular conferences to review progress and prompt next proposals
- Invitational sabbatical research institute
- Supporting actual interstellar missions
Tau Zero Scope
Based on the news about the forthcoming book, Frontiers of Propulsion Science (an example of an opportunistic project), some have asked if Tau Zero is focusing only on space drives and warp drives. No, Tau Zero covers the full span of the seemingly simple solar sails through the seeming impossible faster-than-light travel, and will even deal with sociologic implications of interstellar adventures. The Frontiers book represents the work of only some of our practitioners. Whereas prior interstellar flight publications dealt with technology, there was a void of reliable information about interstellar flight science, things like gravity control propulsion and faster-than-light travel.
Recently, other Foundation practitioners published the book Living Off the Land in Space, which deals with nearer-term technology rather than physics breakthroughs. A large portion of the Foundation’s practitioners are enthusiastic about nearer-term possibilities. Right now, it is premature to go into any of their contributions because I don’t want to make promises for things that we might not get the support to finish.
The sociological aspects are also important since they are the source of motivation (for humanity to survive and thrive) and affect how such work can be pursued in contemporary societal contexts. So far, the Foundation has barely begun to address such vital issues explicitly.
This brings me to another area for clarification; in part a legal obligation to address. The Foundation is NOT in any way affiliated with, or supported by, NASA. For me, NASA is my day-job and has occasionally allowed me to work the technical details of revolutionary spaceflight, but there is so much more that needs to be done than can fit within that day-job. It’s taken some time to work with the NASA lawyers to make sure that I what I do on Tau Zero does not conflict with my day-job and does not violate Federal regulations (you might be surprised about some of those regulations. Sigh).
For example, many of my contributions to the Frontiers of Propulsion Science book were done on NASA time (with clearance from legal & management), although the publisher is the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). AIAA is a professional society that provides a venue through which authors of multiple affiliations and nationalities could jointly contribute as well as providing the financing and distribution of the book to pertinent audiences. Although modest royalties will go to the non-government authors (government employees cannot accept honoraria for work done in their day-jobs), my NASA involvement in this book precludes any royalties going to the Foundation. The public companion book, however, will be handled differently.
I am also compelled to clarify the distinction from my NASA day-job because some of you have expressed the opinion that the government should support the things we do. Alas, that is not possible and the reasons are complex. This is where those sociological implications come in, and why my colleagues and I are seeking citizen and philanthropic support. As one example, when there was government funding, much of it was directed, via congressional earmarks, to boost weak regions rather than being sent to the best professionals.
Also, many of the Foundation’s activities are not allowed in US Government service. Unlike Federal agencies, this Foundation can: (1) Accept volunteer work (2) Accept donations directed for a specific purpose, (3) Create promotional materials as part of educational outreach, (4) Use the allure of science fiction as a thought-provoking tool, and (5) Earn revenue from products.
It’s not just an issue of money. It will not take that much money to make a significant difference. It is about adapting to current conditions and finding the best people. The kind of progress that we deliver is not the sort of thing that can just be assigned. It is a matter of finding today’s pioneers, wherever they may work, and bringing them together to amplify each other’s progress.
There are already well-run space organizations and this Foundation will not attempt to duplicate their fine efforts. Instead, this Foundation will rely on existing organizations whenever possible, channeling support to pioneers who can make the most out of existing research and publication venues.
For example, the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society is already a well-established peer-reviewed journal through which to expose and critique emerging concepts of interstellar flight. Numerous scientific and engineering journals exist for vetting more specific details. Advocacy organizations, such as The Planetary Society and the National Space Society already exist to urge our political leaders to become better educated and more supportive of space endeavors. The X-Prize organization, which is funded through donations, is doing a fantastic job of provoking near-Earth entrepreneurial space adventures. Already their first prize helped launch Virgin Galactic with Burt Rutan’s winning spacecraft. Their next prize is aimed at getting affordable robots to the Moon! The SETI Institute’s Project Phoenix, another privately funded effort, is focused on listening for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. And then there is academia, which teaches students how to become engineers and scientists. Lastly, there are NASA, the European Space Agency, and other government space organization that follow whatever charter their political leaders can agree on for them. Yes, that was a loaded comment, and I’ll drop it there.
What is missing from all this is an organization that looks beyond for the revolutionary advances that would change everything. And with that, providing the inspirations and reliable information from which students can become tomorrow’s pioneers. Being at the edge of knowledge can be risky. By accepting the challenge of the seemingly impossible goal of practical interstellar flight, we could very well discover what routine research overlooks, jumping significantly ahead. For example, science fiction will be deliberately used for its “what-if” and inspirational values, technical investigations will cover what others aren’t, and the provocative social implications will be explored, from the immediate effects of pursuing such a long-range endeavor, to pondering the implications of interstellar excursions, and of contacting extraterrestrial intelligence.
Since that kind of visionary work is difficult to support within established organizations, philanthropic support is sought. Consider for example SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. It was once a government sponsored project that got nixed for being too visionary. With the support of wealthy philanthropists, it resumed its listening. The idea of going beyond that – beyond just listening to figuring out how to get out there – is even more daunting, but a niche that must be filled. The sooner we start working on those prospects, the better we will prepare humanity for the future.
I thought I’d share with you the difficulties we are likely to encounter as we get this Foundation running. It is my hope that, by providing you these insights, you can better grasp the real challenges we face. The goal is to find a way where our audience, you, can help us help you.
As we are finding out, trying to fit in this endeavor in addition to our day-jobs is proving more difficult that anticipated. That is why it is taking so long to get Tau Zero fully on line. Hopefully, as donations come in, we can offload some of the more routine tasks and perhaps even offer honoraria to help our practitioners accelerate their progress.
Obviously securing funding will be an issue. Finally we are now able to accept donations. Related to that is the condition that this Foundation cannot seek government funding so long as I am employed by the government or serving as the Foundation’s president. That does not, however, bar any of our practitioners from seeking government funding directly through their own affiliations, should government funding become available from time to time.
We are also likely to be overwhelmed with more requests that we can respond to. We do indeed want to hear what you think so that we can better serve you, but there are some inputs that are more helpful than others. For example, if you have encountered a book, article, or website that you have found particularly useful, please tell us about it. If there is something that you very much want us to teach on the site, please tell us about that too.
But that said, we’d prefer that you not send in your own work unless it has already been reviewed and published by another peer-reviewed source. If prior experiences are any indicator, I suspect that many enthusiasts will want us to evaluate their ideas. Because of the time-consuming difficulty of providing such reviews and because the results are seldom encouraging, we cannot provide such services. If I had a staff on hand to provide such evaluations, the cost of making the kind of thorough review necessary (given the sheer number of proposals) could reach $5000 per evaluation. Given the constraints not only on funding but the time of working scientists, we can only accept concepts that have been examined by a jury of professionals with solid credentials in the field.
I also know that many of you want us to provide a moderated forum where you can discuss your ideas with others. To a degree, we provide this function with the comment sections following the Centauri Dreams’ articles, although Paul Gilster believes that weblog software is not optimized for this kind of discussion. I was recently informed that one of our practitioners has volunteered to experiment with methods to provide such online discussions. Given the volume of anticipated inputs and the difficulty of moderating such discussions – to let in provocative ideas while filtering out cranks – this service may take a while to debug. From my own experiences of trying to do this in the past, this is a daunting challenge. We may not succeed.
What we can do, and will do, is to provide guidance for how enthusiasts can advance their own work using all the mechanisms that already exist. This includes explaining – via the website and our publications – what has been already done, explaining the foundations of knowledge as they stand today, guiding you to what to study in school, and identifying suitable publishers to whom you can submit your work.
For humanity to reach other habitable worlds or be prepared to escape or prevent Earth disasters, much work is needed. While existing space organizations take the next obvious steps and entrepreneurial adventures bring the thrill of spaceflight to the people, this Tau Zero Foundation reaches beyond for the advances that others are not even looking for – advances that would revolutionize spaceflight. This is the realm of pioneers, risk-takers, and breaking with established norms. You can support this quest through your donations, by identifying the best-quality works to share, and by telling us what you need to know to make progress of your own. We will do what we can to share that information via publications and websites and to actually make the technical progress to take humanity to the stars – ad astra incrementis.