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CHAPTER 2

Normally I don't drink on airplanes. It dehydrates me, and the air in commercial aircraft is dry enough as it is. But this was an exceptional circumstance. My ribs hurt and I was in first class where drinks are free. I figured a couple drinks couldn't hurt and might even help dull the ache in my side. I was on my second domestic beer before the coach section was boarding. I watched the sky marshal eye the coach passengers as they filtered past him at the entrance of the plane. I think he realized that I figured out what he was doing and he quit making eye contact with me.


After a few minutes of that, boredom set in so I began flipping through my slideshow on my laptop for my talk the next day. I just couldn't get in the mood so instead, I pulled up a game of chess I'd been playing the computer for about a week. I'd lost the game about fifty times, so I kept undoing the game back to when I was in the lead and starting over from there. Needless to say, I'm not that good at chess. I was on about my third beer when it looked like the plane was going to be closed up and I would have an empty seat next to me. Then, at the absolute last second, a woman in a U.S. Air Force uniform came through the hatch, made her way to the seat beside me, put her bag away, and sat down next to me. Her rank appeared to me to be light colonel. She looked very familiar also.


Once she was settled in her seat she finally gave me the cordial "hello" that you give the person sitting next to you in an airplane. I returned the "hello" and went back to my beer and chess game. The flight attendant wandered by and asked if I needed anything and told me that I had to turn off my computer for departure. I closed the laptop and replied that I could use another drink. Like I said, I never drink while flying.


By the time we leveled off at twenty-eight thousand feet out of Louisville, it was time to find the lavatory. The captain didn't turn off the seatbelt light a second too soon. I slowly made it up and by the "colonel" and found the restroom. If you ever try to use a bathroom on a commercial aircraft I suggest that you don't do it with two broken and three separated ribs. Each tiny pocket of turbulence I could feel travel up through my leg bones into my torso and finally my ribs. The four beers didn't help either.


I finally gathered my wits and felt my way back to my seat. This time I noticed the wings on the colonel's shoulder and realized where I had seen her before. She looked different with her red hair in a ponytail rather than floating around her on the International Space Station (ISS). She was an astronaut and I had seen her on television. In fact, according to the show I'd seen she had more space hours than any other female astronaut in history.


I said, "Excuse me," to her as I sat down. I got myself settled and then pressed the service button. When the flight attendant returned I asked for my fifth beer. Just as she turned to leave I sneezed. If you have ever had broken ribs you know this is not a good thing to do. I think I already mentioned that.


"Oh shit!" I clutched my side and swallowed back tears.


"Are you okay?" the colonel asked.


"Uh, yeah. I've got a couple of busted ribs and that sneeze suck . . . uh, hurt." The pain began to dissipate and hopefully, so did the grimace on my face.


"I see," she said. "This may seem a little strange but you look familiar to me."


I laughed and clutched my side. "That's funny. I was thinking the same thing. You are Colonel Ames, right? The female astronaut with the most hours in space?"


She smiled and presented her right hand. "Tabitha Ames. It's nice to meet you."


I reciprocated with, "Neil Anson Clemons. Friends call me Anson."


"I thought I recognized you," she said. "Didn't you give the talk on the modified Alcubierre warp drive at the Advanced Propulsion Workshop at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center last summer?"


"Well," I replied. "There were about four or five talks on warp theory last year, but I did give one of them. Are you going to the Breakthrough Physics thing?"


"Yes. In fact I'll probably be a lot more involved with that program in the future," she said and looked at me speculatively. I had no idea what she meant by that. I didn't really care since the attendant finally returned with my beer. Colonel Ames surprised me and asked for one too.


"Can you drink on duty?" I asked.


"Who says I'm on duty?" she retorted in a mind-your-own-business way.


"Oh," I said as if I'd been scolded. I'm not sure what it was but Colonel Ames has this air about her that she's the boss no matter who's in the room. The simple inflections in her voice are enough to make you feel good or bad, it just depends how she means it. Some people have this talent. Myself, I just trip and fumble over my heavy north Alabama accent and hope people at least understand what I'm trying to say. Then I usually throw in a "Well, Haiyul far! I just made all that sheyut up. It's probably all wrong" just to cover my ass. For some reason people believe if you talk with a Southern accent you're an idiot. Let 'em keep thinkin' that.


With both feet in my mouth, I asked, "Don't you astronauts usually fly trainers wherever you are going?"


"I have too many hours this week so it was either second seat or commercial," she replied.


"I see. You know I have put in an astronaut application each open time since 1999 and never once even got an interview. What's the trick?" I asked jokingly.


"Well, for a mission specialist I guess the trick is to come up with an experiment that has to be done in space that only you can do." She pursed her lips as if in thought, then replied, "You've only been trying for ten years?"


I nodded yes.


"Don't give up." She smiled at me and I felt like I could do anything. Some people just have the ability to inspire confidence. Colonel Ames definitely inspired something in me.


"If I may ask, why and for how long have you been so interested in space flight anyway?" She smiled and shrugged at me.


"Don't mind you askin' at all. I don't really know a date exactly but it is all I've ever wanted to do. My mom tells me it is because I'm destined to it," I replied.


"Destined to it?" Colonel Ames asked.


"Oh, yeah that's a neat story. You see I was born at the exact instant that the Lunar Excursion Module of Apollo 11 touched down on the moon. I'm certain thousands, heck maybe more, babies were born at that instant, but it must be destiny according to Mom. You know how mothers can be," I explained and kind of laughed.


She just nodded as if she understood. Then the plane rocked swiftly from turbulence and I grimaced in pain and held my side. She noticed.


"If you don't mind my asking, how'd you hurt yourself?" She seemed sincere and looked concerned. Then is when I realized her eyes were brown. I think that's common for redheads, or is it green?


"Well, I was in the International Sport Karate Association Championship yesterday. I left my right elbow up when it should've been down." I made a motion like a right backfist showing how it leaves your ribs open, and I placed my left hand on my right side. "I caught a side kick full-bore right here. I still won though!" I couldn't tell if she was impressed or not.


"So you do karate to stay fit?" she asked.


"Yeah, also a lot of mountain bike riding and some runnin', but my favorite is karate," I replied. "If I ever do get accepted into the astronaut program, I still have to meet the fitness requirements."


"Good, you have the right attitude," she said. "I do a lot of running and swimming and a little aerobic kickboxing. A lot of astronauts that I know are into karate and a lot are into cycling. Whatever works best for you."


The remainder of the flight consisted of small talk and my fascination with how things worked on the ISS. Of course, I had studied the spacecraft. I even worked on one of the modules as a subcontractor to one of the big aerospace firms in my late graduate school years. But there is no substitute for actually being there. I asked about the Space Shuttle ride and if she ever got sick. She said that she never did. I'm sure this was a lie. Doesn't everybody get sick the first time? I asked when she planned to go up again and her response was very political.


"I just want to do what is best for the program," she replied. I guess astronauts have to be good natured and careful about what they say around everyone. Things have definitely changed from the old "who's the best pilot you ever saw" Mercury astronaut days.


I did find out one thing about astronauts. They're not, or at least Colonel Ames is not, particularly good at chess. Mid-flight I beat her hands-down three games in a row and one of those with a fool's mate. Then again, all those hours I spent playing my laptop chess, she was practicing how to land the Space Shuttle and I sure wish I could trade!


The flight attendant was gently shaking my shoulder. I didn't even realize that I was asleep. God, we had already landed in Baltimore and were at the gate. When did Colonel Ames leave and when did I stop talking to her? Who turned off my laptop? Beer and painkillers, don't mix them.


The flight attendant helped me with my overhead bag and I headed for a very crowded rental car counter. Thank God for all the air miles I had that made me a gold medallion customer, which enabled me to go to the front of the line. Then I had to catch a shuttle from the rental car desk to the rental car parking lot.


The trip to the hotel was typical. I took Interstate Ninety-five down to Highway One. The "Parkway" was bumper-to-bumper and it took thirty minutes to get off One and onto the Greenbelt where my hotel was. By the time I got checked in to the hotel I was beat. I tried to rehearse my view graphs, but after about three of them I said, "screw it" and went to bed.


The alarm clock scared the living daylights out of me! I was so tired I don't even remember dreaming. I hate nights like that. Since I sleep on my back, I tried to raise myself sit-up style; nothing doing! My ribs still were causing me a lot of pain. I broke my hand once when I was a teenager. It seemed to take about a week before the really big pain subsided to a dull ache. I still get a dull ache in it just before it rains and it's been over twenty-three years. It must have something to do with the low-pressure systems usually accompanied by rain. I've asked physicians about that before. They always laugh and say it's in my head. There's enough crazy stuff in my head. Why would I put that in there too? Stupid alchemists.


Anyway, I had to tuck my left hand over my ribs and hold myself tightly. Then I rolled over counterclockwise and sort of fell out of bed. Getting shaved, showered, and dressed was just as tough, and I said many bad words that my great aunt Meg would've been proud of.


 


The "Breakthrough Physics Propulsion" Workshop or BPP Workshop was held in an auditorium-sized room. The start of the meeting was fairly standard for a technical conference. The director of the conference said a few words and corrected a few scheduling mistakes. One in particular caught my attention.


"Our guest speaker and new director of the BPP, Colonel Tabitha Ames has requested to be moved from first speaker this morning to last. So, make a note of that. Let's get started then. This change makes the first speaker this morning Dr. Anson Clemons from Metric Engineering Inc. Dr. Clemons is also a faculty member of the Physics Department at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and he is a member of the National Space Science and Technology Center or NSSTC as it has come to be known. Dr. Clemons."


It was a damn good thing I wasn't late. I slowly moved up to the front of the auditorium and handed a CD with my slideshow to the audio/visual person. I fiddled around with the clip-on microphone for a minute or so, then got comfortable with the slideshow remote/laser pointer. Clearing my throat, I began.


"Hello, I'm Anson Clemons as you were just told, and I plan to talk to you today about the status of spacetime metric engineering and how close we're to demonstrating faster-than-light space travel. Of course, everybody realizes that we can't go faster than the speed of light in the vacuum, but as Miguel Alcubierre showed us in 1994 it is possible to effectively create a region of spacetime that's 'warped' in such a way that the vacuum speed of light is increased tremendously. So, instead of the vacuum speed of light being one, assume it can be increased to one thousand. This means that a spacecraft could possibly travel at hundreds of times faster than the vacuum speed of light and never notice any Special Relativistic effects: no time dilation, spacetime contraction, nothing.


"Alcubierre himself stated up front in the abstract of that wonderful 1994 paper in Classical and Quantum Gravity that in order to accomplish this 'warp bubble' that a tremendous amount of exotic matter would be required. Of course, we all know that the exotic matter implies negative energy and the number of papers supporting, opposing, or correcting the Alcubierre warp theory absolutely snowballed over the next decade. I know that many of us here in this room are guilty of writing several of them." I gave a quick guilty smile and harrumphed in response to the chuckles coming from the audience, and then I added, "On a more personal note, it was one of these papers that inadvertently caused me to leave NASA and start my own company.


"This was the theoretical paper that showed up at the BPP Workshop in '07 on the possibility of using a very large static electric field on oppositely rotating conductor plates to cause a gravity-shielding effect. This paper was at first dismissed as the old Podkletnov spinning superconductor effect shown in the late nineties. It turned out to actually be a correction to the General Relativity. Where General Relativity must be gauged, using the Dirac type zytterbewegung oscillations as the reference frame thus yields an ungauged General Relativity! This was first reported by Maker in 2000. Then it was more precisely described in the '07 paper. Discovering this, I immediately gathered up as many grad students as I could find and started my own research effort to measure this effect.


"Thanks to funding from the BPP and almost three years of hard work, we at Metric Engineering can say that the experiment not only works, but we have observed electrons moving at near the speed of light simply disappear after passing between the spinning plates. We have no idea where they went!"


I paused at this point to see what type of reaction I'd get. Claims have been so strange in the past BPP Workshops that most folks wait until all the data is displayed before they decide whether or not you're a nut. Well, I'm not a nut, and most of the people in the room knew that I was a careful scientist. I don't make cold fusion claims or yell that the sky is falling unless it really is. But nobody is perfect and I'd been wrong in the past. That is part of science; you can't be right all the time.


The talk continued for some time with a lot of graphs from data and some theoretical analysis in that crazy Einstein tensor notation I mentioned previously. I finished up to a resounding applause after stating that the problem still remains that there are sixteen equations, with four unknowns each, making it damn near impossible to get an analytical solution, which describes the experimental data. I also mentioned that if anybody ever does solve the Einstein equations for the warp field and if they win a Nobel Prize that he or she should share it with Miguel Alcubierre.


Then the questions started. Imagine a room where every person in that room believes that he or she is the smartest person in the world. Now imagine that you have somehow insulted every one of those people's intelligence. Forget that. Imagine that you have been dowsed in blood and fish guts, and then thrown into a shark tank during a feeding frenzy. That best describes what happened next.


There were questions like, "How do you know the electrons disappeared? Where did they go? Are you sure you didn't just make a sloppy measurement? They probably just got attracted by the conductor plates, moron!" Okay, that last one was not a question. These are the kinder comments. The only real question was, "Have you figured out a way to decrease the amount of energy required to sustain a warp bubble?"


That last question hit home. Even if we solve the Einstein equations and show that warp drive is possible, the latest and greatest calculations still suggest that over 1x1020 joules of energy are required constantly to maintain the warped spacetime bubble! That's more energy than the entire human race generates in one year. One problem at a time please!


At some point the frenzy subsided and the director introduced the next speaker while I gathered my stuff and headed back to my seat. About halfway back I noticed that the next speaker was tapping on my shoulder. I turned and he smiled at me, "I think I will need the microphone." He laughed.


"Hunh?" I was confused.


"The microphone," he said and pointed at my tie where the wireless clip-on microphone still remained.


"Oh sorry. I was hoping to keep it for myself." I laughed with the rest of the room, untangled the microphone from myself, and handed it over.


Once I got back to my seat I noticed that Colonel Ames had slipped into the back of the room. I gave her a nod and she smiled at me—sort of. Maybe it was just wishful thinking. Not that I was attracted to her that much, however she is a pretty woman. She is about five or so years younger than me and only about two inches shorter. Me, I'm five feet ten inches, in shoes. Her red hair was in some sort of military bun or something. What would you call it? I'm not a hairdresser. In fact, I've not even combed my hair with anything other than my fingers since 1987. At any rate, it wasn't a major attraction that I had for the colonel at that time; it was more a feeling of growing professional admiration and respect. After all, she is an astronaut. And if you believe that one, let me tell you about some swampland my grandmother is trying to sell.


After several more speakers and one coffee break, it was her turn to speak. Just before she began to speak something tickled my nose and I sneezed horribly. Twice! I also groaned once in agony and hugged myself tightly as I doubled over. Tabitha looked up realizing who had made all the noise. For a second she gave me a sort of motherly empathetic frown. One of those, Oh sweetheart you have skinned your knee, haven't you? kind of looks that your mom used to give you. Let Momma kiss it and make it all better. Had I not been in such pain I would've liked it. Oh, what the hell, I liked it anyway. Then she had to go and ruin it all with her talk.


"As many of you may already know, I have recently been appointed the directorship of the Breakthrough Physics Program. Since 1999 about sixty million dollars of the NASA budget has been spent on theoretical analyses and experiments with very—" then she hesitated for dramatic effect, I guess, "-—questionable results. I by no means am making statements regarding the quality or heroism required for involvement with this program. On the other hand, for the past ten or more years very little has been accomplished." This time she paused due to the rumbling sound coursing throughout the room.


"The BPP hasn't been canceled but it is being reorganized and given a new focus. Instead of focusing on projects that are extremely high risk, the BPP will now be directed toward breakthrough physics that can be more readily applied to the space program in the near term. There is a lot of research needed on new launch vehicle propulsion, stronger materials for solar sails, safer fission reactors for nuclear electric propulsion concepts. Perhaps we should face it that the physics is just not quite ready for warp drive. I'm excited by the efforts made thus far in the warp field theory arena, but it isn't going to be the focus of this program any longer."


Her talk continued with budget charts, and a list of all the projects funded, and the errors in those projects. I can hardly continue describing her talk. How is a measly sixty million dollars over eleven years really going to affect the NASA budget? There were rumbles of "I will call my congressman you just wait" and "This isn't over yet!" I threw in a couple of much nastier comments myself: one particularly that I had heard my grandma use on a state trooper when I was twelve, but y'all don't need to hear that. Then it hit me.


"Hey! Quiet the hell down for a minute. What about the contracts already in place and the funding already promised to various organizations throughout the country?"


"I was expecting someone to ask that." Tabitha nodded. "This directive came from way above me and NASA HQ. Rumor is it comes from the Joint Chiefs, though I'm not sure why. So don't kill the messenger. The good news is that all contracts in place now will be continued throughout this fiscal year. As of FY 12 the funding will be reduced to half on currently funded projects and then phased out completely in FY 13."


"That's not very long," I muttered to myself. I was close. I could taste it. I only had ten months of full funding left and then a year at half that. Without other funding sources I would lose the company for certain. I said "Shit!" under my breath and hung my head. The only thing that I could think of at the time was, "Screw y'all. I'm going the hell home." I gathered up my toys and left.


 


It felt good to get home even if I did have bad news. Of course, Friday was the only one home and she didn't care. I opened the door and damn near stepped on her. She is a lazy and stubborn cat. I tried dogs when I was younger, but I could never figure out how to keep them from jumping on me with muddy paws just when I was wearing a white shirt. No matter how much pepper spray I would put on the flowers, they still dug them up and slept in the flowerbeds. Besides, I like cats: old man Farnham, Maureen Johnson, and Lazarus Long liked cats, 'nuff said!


I tapped the machine as I came in. Beeeep! You have seven new messages. Message one. "Hi Anson, this is Jim. I got something you ought to see as soon as you get back. You said something about the Casimir effect in your drunken stupor between the hospital and the hotel Sunday night. When I got back in Monday I went straight to the lab. I think I've got an answer to the energy problem! Call me when you get in. Oh yeah, hope you're feeling all right. Bye." End of message one. 


Message two. "Neil Anson Clemons this is your mother! Where were you Saturday? I called and called and you never answered! You missed your brother. He came to town for a surprise visit. Oh well, call us when you get in. We love you, bye." End of message two. 


Message three. "Yes Mr. Clemons, this is Angela Landry with the credit union. We noticed a lot of traffic on your debit card in St. Louis and then in Maryland over the past week and we just wanted to make sure it was authorized. Please contact us at your earliest convenience." End of message three. 


Message four. "Hi, Dr. Clemons. This is Colonel Ames from the BPP Workshop. You left before we got to talk further. Could you please contact me? My contact info is on the BPP website and in the agenda for the meeting. It was nice meeting you. Okay, bye." End of message four. 


Message five. "Hey Anson. Do you believe that crap about cutting the BPP? You bugged out of Goddard pretty quick man. I wanted to know what you thought. Didn't you tell me that you thought it would be good to get an astronaut as the BPP director? Boy, were you wrong. Oh well, call me. By the way, this is Matt Lake." End of message five. 


Message six. "Son, this is your mother again. Where are you? Do you just not return your calls anymore? It wouldn't hurt you to come see us every now and then you know! Oh well bye for now. Call us when you get home." End of message six. 


Message seven. "Anson, have you gotten home yet? This is Rebecca. Jim is about to die to show you what he thinks we've done. He told me about your ribs. Hope you're okay. Call us when you get in. B'bye." End of message seven. 


Mom always did that when I was gone. I told her I would be out of town, but she still acts like I never told her about it. She does that every time. For a while I thought she might have Alzheimer's, but then I realized she just likes stirring things up.


Matt Lake is a colleague of mine from New Mexico State University. We had collaborated on some papers before and were presently working on one. I was supposed to meet Matt for dinner after the meeting at Goddard. "I should get in touch with him and explain why I left," I thought out loud. Friday looked up as if I were talking to her. I just smiled back at her and reassured her that she was the prettiest cat in the whole universe. You have to do that. Cats are pretentious and need constant ego stroking.


I didn't know which message to respond to first. So, I replayed the fourth one six times more. Just to be sure.


 


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