Tau Zero Update

Tau Zero’s Kelvin Long seems to be everywhere these days, his most recent publication being a summary of the interstellar sessions at the UK Space Conference, held in early April. You can read that one here, where you’ll discover that Long also provides a thorough backgrounder on the Tau Zero Foundation, its goals and vision for the future. Some of these goals are much discussed in these pages — to make incremental progress toward the robotic and human exploration of the stars by using philanthropic funding to support credible research by Tau Zero ‘practitioner’ scientists.

Other goals include practical ways to expand the public perception of interstellar issues, including supporting students through scholarships, offering educational products, and organizing sessions at established conferences. Echoes naturally arise from the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project that Marc Millis once managed for NASA, but in fact Tau Zero hopes to take a significantly different course, and one with a broader charter. From Long’s summation:

The Tau Zero Foundation is interested in all aspects of interstellar research. This includes the seeming impossible faster-than-light travel schemes such as Warp Drive, through to the seemingly simple solar sails which were recently described in a book by practitioner Greg Matloff titled Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel, by Praxis Publishing Limited. Matloff has also initiated an interstellar precursor mission study with the help of Claudio Bruno and others. This is for an IAA Commission 3 study for a probe to the outer heliosphere to be launched around the 2023 timeframe. This shows that the work of the Foundation is not just a continuation of the NASA BPP work but is broad ranging in scope.

We should note that while hunting up philanthropic funding provides its own challenges, it also gets the organization out from under the political and bureaucratic bonds imposed by large government organizations, and thus offers significant advantages. We’ve recently seen another side of what we hope will become a regular Tau Zero activity, which is the publication of books and articles that gather recent research and communicate it to the public. Here Long is again center stage, as he is working on the upcoming book Interstellar Travel: Going from Mars to the Stars, to be published by Springer in 2010. And as if that weren’t enough, he heads up the Project Icarus starship effort, a joint activity between the British Interplanetary Society and Tau Zero.

The six presentations from the UK Space Conference are summarized in Long’s current article, and having read it, you’ll want to know that you can access all of the conference presentations at Tibor Pacher’s peregrinus interstellar site. And speaking of Tau Zero activities, the interstellar bet between Tibor and myself continues to show a satisfying tilt in my direction, with 73 percent of those voting agreeing with me that 2025 is too early to expect the launch of a true interstellar mission with a mission duration of less than 2000 years. Tibor and I will be talking about the bet and other matters at the upcoming Sixth IAA Symposium on Realistic Near-Term Advanced Scientific Space Missions, to be held this July in Aosta, Italy. The current Aosta program is available and, thanks to Tibor, now easy to access online.

Tau Zero Foundation

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.

Sneak preview

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.

The Basics

  • 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

Ultimate Embodiment

  • Invitational sabbatical research institute
  • Supporting actual interstellar missions

Tau Zero Scope

Tau Zero Foundation logo

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.

Our Niche

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.

Anticipated Roadblocks

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.

Sneak Preview of Tau Zero Website

Frontiers of Propulsion Science: A Major New Text

Tau Zero Foundation founder Marc Millis has been anything but idle this spring. The good news, which I am finally able to share, is that he and a team of scientists have been compiling a book that is truly a first of its kind. Frontiers of Propulsion Science is a collection of essays about where we are today and where we are going with propulsion research.

This book is the work of many hands, and if you’ll peruse the list, you’ll see it contains some of the major names in this field. Many of them, I am pleased to say, are Tau Zero practitioners (for background on what a ‘practitioner’ of TZF is, see this background document on the Foundation).

Published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the book is intended for aerospace engineering and science audiences, with a goal of describing current research and offering pointers for following up these issues. And while this will be an expensive text, designed for a graduate school and above reading level, it is the intention of the Tau Zero Foundation to create a companion volume oriented to broader audiences that will aim to explain advanced propulsion for the layman.

Here is a list of authors and their papers (some titles may change):

  • Foreword
    Burt Rutan, Scaled Composites, LLC, Mojave, CA
  • Preface
    Marc G. Millis, NASA Glenn Research Center, Cleveland OH
  • A Recent History of Breakthrough Propulsion Studies
    Paul Gilster, Centauri Dreams, Raleigh, NC
  • Limits of Interstellar Flight Technology
    Robert H. Frisbee, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, Pasadena CA
  • Prerequisites For Space Drive Science
    Marc G. Millis, NASA Glenn Research Center, Cleveland OH
  • Review of Gravity Control within Newtonian and General Relativity Physics
    Eric W. Davis, Institute for Advanced Studies at Austin, TX
  • Gravitational Experiments with Superconductors: History and Lessons
    George D. Hathaway, Hathaway Consulting, Toronto, Canada
  • Nonviable Mechanical ‘Antigravity’ Devices
    Marc G. Millis, NASA Glenn Research Center, Cleveland OH
  • Null Findings of Yamishita Electrogravitational Patent
    Kenneth E. Siegenthaler and Timothy Lawrence, US Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs CO
  • Force Characterization of Asymmetrical Capacitor Thrusters in Air
    William M. Miller, Sandia National Lab, Albuquerque NM
    Paul B. Miller, East Mountain Charter High School, Sandia Park, NM and
    Timothy J. Drummond, Sandia National Lab, Albuquerque NM
  • Experimental Findings of Asymmetrical Capacitor Thrusters For Various Gasses and Pressures
    Francis X. Canning, Simply Sparse Technologies, Morgantown WV
  • Propulsive Implications of Photon Momentum in Media
    Michael R. LaPointe, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville AL
  • Experimental Results of the Woodward Effect on a µN Thrust Balance
    Nembo Buldrini, ARC Seibersdorf Research, Seibersdorf, Austria
  • Thrusting Against the Quantum Vacuum
    Jordan Maclay, Quantum Fields LLC, Richland Center WI
  • Inertial Mass From Stochastic Electro-Dynamics (SED)
    Jean-Luc Cambier, US Air Force Research Labs, Edwards AFB, CA
  • Relativistic Limits of Spaceflight
    Brice Cassenti, Rensselaer, Hartford CT
  • Faster-Than-Light Approaches in General Relativity
    Eric W. Davis, Institute for Advanced Studies at Austin, TX
  • Faster-Than-Light Implications of Quantum Entanglement and Nonlocality
    John Cramer, University of Washington, Seattle WA
  • Comparative Space Power Baselines
    Gary L. Bennett, Metaspace Enterprises, Emmett, ID
  • On Extracting Energy from the Quantum Vacuum
    Eric W. Davis and H. E. Puthoff, Institute for Advanced Studies at Austin, TX
  • Investigating Sonoluminescence as a Means of Energy Harvesting
    John D. Wrbanek, Gustave Fralick, Susan Wrbanek, and Nancy Hall, NASA Glenn Research Center, Cleveland
  • Null Tests of ‘Free-Energy’ Claims
    Scott R. Little, EarthTech International, Austin TX
  • General Relativity Computational Tools and Conventions for Propulsion
    Claudio Maccone, International Academy of Astronautics, Italy
  • Prioritizing Pioneering Research
    Marc G. Millis, NASA Glenn Research Center, Cleveland OH

The current schedule calls for the AIAA volume to appear late in 2008 (we are about to enter the page proof process now). I am unaware of any other text quite like this, aimed explicitly at the concepts that could take us to the stars using the kind of breakthroughs in physics we are all interested in studying and following up where they seem promising. As a leading indicator of the now coalescing field of interstellar studies, Frontiers of Propulsion Science should break useful ground indeed.

The Latest on the Tau Zero Foundation

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.

Going Interstellar at Princeton

The annual New Trends in Astrodynamics and Applications conference meets for the third time this week in Princeton, with Ed Belbruno calling the house to order on Wednesday. From an interstellar perspective, this year’s conference is packed — last year we had but three interstellar papers, whereas the 2006 meeting will feature two complete sessions and no fewer than nine papers on topics ranging from collecting antimatter from natural sources in the Solar System (James Bickford) to spacecraft miniaturization (Mason Peck) and antimatter/nuclear hybrids (Gerald Jackson). You can find the list of speakers and their topics at the program site.

This year the focus on near-term precursor concepts is robust. Greg Matloff will report on interim missions as a way to ‘prep for Centaurus,’ while Les Johnson and Sandy Montgomery (NASA MSFC) will present the latest solar sail developments, and Claudio Maccone will examine the FOCAL mission to the Sun’s gravity lens. I had been looking forward to renewing conversations with both Matloff and Maccone and haven’t seen Johnson or Montgomery since researching my book in 2003, but unexpected developments scuttled my travel plans.

Nonetheless, Centauri Dreams should be able to report on many of these papers after the fact, and from what I’ve seen already, they should make for fascinating reading. Marc Millis’ presentation on the “Incessant Obsolescence Postulate and Practical Interstellar Flight” makes shrewd points about mission times and targets that will provide fodder for lengthy discussion, and Jordin Kare will be on hand to talk about his ‘Sailbeam’ concept for probes moving at a tenth of lightspeed.

All this good material reminds me that two years have gone by since I first talked about making the re-creation of a yearly interstellar bibliography a prime goal of the Tau Zero Foundation (which in those days was being developed under a different name). I say ‘re-creating’ because the first interstellar bibliography was produced by Robert Forward and Eugene Mallove over a quarter of a century ago. Its last appearance was in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 1980, with 2700 items in 70 subject categories. That a working bibliography is a basic tool for research in these disciplines is obvious, and my hope is to begin work on the new one before year’s end.

Marc Millis Interviewed on Cosmic Log

An interview with Marc Millis, founder of the Tau Zero Foundation, was posted yesterday on Alan Boyle’s Cosmic Log on the MSNBC Web site. After discussing the so-called ‘antigravity’ phenomenon known as the Podkletnov effect, which has been called into serious question by recent studies that found no evidence for it, Millis went on to discuss other, more intriguing research. From the interview:

Millis is more interested in research into the Woodward effect – “a transient inertia effect” that could eventually have implications for propulsion, if verified – as well as a more recent study of “a fairly large gravitomagnetic effect, too large to be explained with general relativity as we understand it so far.”

He cautioned that “we’re not talking about an immediate propulsive effect, and it might be a measuring artifact.” But at least the research illustrates that there are still mysteries out there that could someday turn those science-fiction dreams into practical starflight.

Centauri Dreams will have more to say about Woodward’s explanation of inertia and its connection to Mach’s principle in a future post.