As any avid Star Trek fan can tell you, the eccentric physicist Zefram Cochrane invented the warp-drive engine in the year 2063. It wasn’t easy. Cochrane had to contend with evil time-traveling aliens who were determined to stop him from building the faster-than-light propulsion system (see the 1996 movie Star Trek: First Contact for details). But in the end he succeeded, and centuries later his warp drive powered the interstellar voyages of the starship Enterprise.
What Star Trek fans may not know is that a physicist in the real world—specifically, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston—is investigating the feasibility of building a real warp-drive engine. Harold “Sonny” White, head of the center’s advanced propulsion program, has assembled a tabletop experiment designed to create tiny distortions in spacetime, the malleable fabric of the universe. If the experiment is successful, it may eventually lead to the development of a system that could generate a bubble of warped spacetime around a spacecraft. Instead of increasing the craft’s speed, the warp drive would distort the spacetime along its path, allowing it to sidestep the laws of physics that prohibit faster-than-light travel. Such a spacecraft could cross the vast distances between stars in just a matter of weeks.