Warp Drives and Wormholes — The 2021 Interstellar Research Group Symposium
There are some times in life where days go by in months. There are some times in life where months go by in days. From September 25th to September 27th 2021, I got the opportunity to experience, at the Interstellar Research Group’s (IRG) 2021 Symposium in Tucson, AZ, what it felt like for years of life to go by in a matter of hours.
The Interstellar Research Group, formerly known as the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, is an American-based research group focused on problems related to interstellar travel. Everything from advanced propulsion techniques such as warp drives, to the latest terraforming techniques, are discussed among the top scientists in the country in efforts to make science fiction a reality. And it’s not just work that’s being done on paper: There’s some serious money going into these projects thanks to funding sources such as DARPA and NASA.
This is a group whose videos I had been consuming ever since I was a freshman in college, as the primary reason I switched from producing music full-time to mechanical engineering was to make humanity an interstellar species. I vowed if I ever got the opportunity to partake in the conference I would jump on it, so when my poster on “Interstellar Braking Techniques for Spacecraft Moving at Relativistic Speeds” was accepted, I had to find a way to make it to Tucson without bankrupting myself. Thankfully, Washington State University’s Honors College agreed to cover all the expenses of my trip, so this “report” from yours truly is a little something I’m putting together as a thank you to the incredibly generous patrons who made this possible.
I started off my attendance at the conference by sitting down with Mark Medley, Deputy Editor for the Globe, to talk with him one-on-one over dinner about the future of interstellar travel for a new book he’s writing on projects that take multiple human lifetimes to complete. Sat down with him over pizza at a nearby restaurant, an hour and a half later the waitresses had to kick us out because we were still talking right up until closing time.
I then embarked on two of three incredible tours I would experience on the trip: The laboratory in which the largest telescope mirrors in the world are being manufactured for the Giant Magellan Telescope, and the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research. The latter was especially interesting: It was until the field of dendrochronology, birthed by this lab, that many archaeological sites could be dated right down to the year. After a couple drinks at a local space-themed art show sponsored by the University of Arizona, I then settled down for the night for the first full day of the conference. I couldn’t have imagined the incredible moments I was about to have over the next few days.
My first interaction was with Dr. Gerald Jackson (Gerry to everyone), one of the top antimatter researchers in the world, and working on some propulsion projects with the technology that, after hearing about them, I’m not sure I’m allowed to reveal publicly. In addition to being razor sharp, he had incredible stories that would stop anyone in their tracks (not many people are approached by the CIA because they pulled out the wrong books in Cornell’s library, for instance). Of course, he was just the warmup.
I then met Douglas Loss, president of IRG, one of the most down to earth people I’ve ever met. He put me onto old classics such as Black Betty, and we talked about the early days of the conference. I ran into Dr. Amelia Greig, someone who I hadn’t seen since 2018 and wasn’t expecting to run into, who had given me a few incredibly helpful pointers back in 2018 when I was in the early days of developing a Hall Effect thruster for Washington State University’s Cougs in Space organization. Had a blast catching up with her and listening to her work on using plasma arcs to harness water from asteroids (a project which she was receiving a NASA grant to explore).
Then the conference really began to pick up, and I had to start pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t in a dream. I ran into Dr. Kevin Parkin, a researcher whose work on beamed energy microwave propulsion I had been reading ever since freshman year, and talked with him about what was in store in his role as one of the lead scientists on Project Starshot(humanity’s best idea given the current understanding of physics for realistically sending robotic probes to other star systems). I sat down for dinner with Dr. Sonny White, head of NASA’s advance propulsion research division “Eagleworks,” who was at the conference to promote his new organization, the Limitless Space Institute, which was pouring millions of dollars of funding into some of the crazy ideas being pursued by researchers there. After getting his card to see if there was any way I could help with some of the projects he was funding, I had a serendipitous conversation with a lady named Marta from Helicity Space whose organization was, unironically, working on a nuclear fusion driven rocket with funding from NASA and some angel investors. Sitting down for lunch with Dr. Setthivione “Sett” You and Dr. Stephane Linter to talk about their fusion drive technology for over an hour, I couldn’t believe the number of times words such as “plectonemic plasmas,” “frozen fields,” and “z-pinches” were used unironically, and I loved absolutely every minute of it. I got to hear Sett and Gerry argue, unironically again, for a good twenty minutes on whether Sett’s fusion drive idea was actually possible due to problems such as Lawson criterion limitations.
But despite these heavy hitters, these weren’t the most inspiring people I met there. The ones that really gave me perspective were Matthew “Matt” Gorban and Mathias Larrouturou, two students who were presenting on “Variable Mass Propellantless Propulsion Drives” and “Dynamic Soaring as a Means to Exceed the Solar Wind Speed” respectively. Despite the fact that Mathias was a few years younger than me, and Mathias was just a few months older than me, they were both working on advanced propulsion concepts that even some PhDs would have a hard time following.
Nothing could’ve elucidated this point further when Dr. Gabriele Rizzo, an Airforce Laboratory Researcher who studies warp drives in his free time, was presenting on “faster than light warp drive” concepts. “You see half of that warp drive research he’s citing as previous work?,” Matthew asked me, “that’s all my research.” Then he proceeded to answer questions Gerry, the antimatter propulsion researcher, had about specific aspects of warp field design, while also writing a question to correct Dr. Rizzo on some of his slides while doing this. Now do you see why I was pinching myself?
I could go on and on with stories to turn this into a small book. I got to witness one of the funniest talks from Dr. Brent Ziarnick, an assistant professor at the Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College, who was one of the most down to earth people I’ve ever met despite the amount of “street-smart” wisdom he had for everyone at the conference. I got to tour Biosphere 2 from the two directors of the lab John Adams and Kai Staats, which contrary to new stories is actually an incredible success and was one of the early pivotal labs which experimentally showed that an increase in CO2 would lead to detrimental effects for humanity. During the final dinner in which Homer Hickman, the author of the book which would eventually turn into the movie “October Sky,” told incredible stories about his life, the IRG conference acknowledged yours truly as one of its $2500 scholarship winners in front of everyone. I learned from Dr. Andrew Higgins and Mathias that the “Roadmap to Nuclear Gas Core Rockets” whitepaper I had published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society ended up being pivotal in convincing other academic journals to publish their work on beamed energy thermal propulsion systems. Did I mention all the other incredible meal-time conversations I had with people like Dr. Joseph E. Meany and Steve Durst, or running into Albert “Al” Jackson who, oh, just so happened to work on the Apollo moon lander?
This whole experience would not be possible without the tireless work of the IRG executive team and volunteers. I wanted to give a very big, special thank you to Stephen Fleming, Douglas Loss, and Martha Knowles in addition to the dozens of other people whose work behind the scenes made this event one of the most smoothly and incredibly executed conferences I’ve ever been a part of: And do so in a hybrid format to boot!
The next IRG Symposium will be held in Dr. Higgins’ home-base of Montreal at McGill University in 2023, and needless to say these two years can’t go by fast enough. If you have any sort of interest in making humanity an interstellar species, this is an event you can’t miss.
Thank you so much again to the IRG team for putting together an incredible event, and thank you so much to Washington State University’s Honor College for funding my trip. It’ll be a memory that I’ll cherish forever, and hopefully the first of many IRG conferences for me. Ad Astra.