When Star Trek premiered on American television in 1966, the world was exposed to the idea of a spaceship traveling faster than the speed of light. That concept of a Warp Drive remained in the world of fiction until 1994 when Mexican Mathematician Miguel Alcubierre presented a mathematical model under which a human-piloted craft could theoretically exceed the speed of light.
A decade passed, but quietly in the background, NASA brought in scientist Dr. Harold G. “Sonny” White in the mid-2000s to continue developing the Warp Drive. White made refinements to the original model, and in 2003 and 2011, significant leaps were made in Warp Drive theory, seemingly making the impossible a little more possible. Even more revisions have been, and today, the leading model for faster-than-light travel is dubbed the Alcubierre/White Warp Drive.
In the decade since, Dr. White has worked with NASA, DARPA, and even Lockheed Martin Skunkworks, all while continuing to refine his concept of the Warp Drive.
In 2018, White left NASA and took his work on advanced propulsion with him. He joined the nascent Limitless Space Institute, a group of scientists and engineers driven by the goal of deep space travel.
Then White went dark.
Now, in his first interview since he left NASA, Dr. White sat down with The Debrief to talk about his past, what’s next for his warp drive theory, as well as the cutting edge, advanced propulsion projects from scientists around the globe who are supported and sponsored by Limitless Space.
The Debrief: So Sonny, when did you first realize you were interested in a possible career in science?
Sonny White: Yeah, you know, I’ve always been very interested in engineering and science. I’ve always been interested in trying to figure out how do things fit together? And how do they work? As a kid, I built models.
I was blessed to grow up in Washington, DC. When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time in the National Air and Space Museum in the Smithsonian. And so, as a young kid, I got a chance to look at all these incredible achievements. Incredible science.
I think it impacted me a lot. I’ve always had a healthy interest in airplanes, and that really steered me down a path where I knew I wanted to work in aerospace.
And as I got more and more knowledge, I tended to get more focused on this idea of bold space exploration. The stuff we see in science fiction stories, what does it take to do that?
TD: Did advanced propulsion concepts in science fiction interest you? Were you a Star Wars or Star Trek guy growing up at all?
SW: I like good stories. And I think the Star Wars that we grew up with, those were really good stories. And I enjoyed those. It was neat to see people going through these challenges that they were going through. And the science fiction was kind of a backdrop. It wasn’t a distraction from the story. The same thing was true with a lot of the Star Trek TV shows, and there were a lot of good stories. And so I think, while I like the idea of bold space exploration, and I like science fiction, it’s not like that’s connected at the hip, if you will.
TD: It wasn’t like science was jumping off the screen, and you were saying, “I want to be the first guy to build the phaser?”
SW: Right. I think certainly, those things color your thoughts about what might be possible. I don’t want to underplay that. It’s powerful to see some of the things that could potentially be possible. So I’ll certainly acknowledge that. I think that motivated Miguel Alcubierre when he wrote this paper on the idea of a space warp. He was just kind of “what if?” This stuff that we see, “what if?” What does it look like in the formal mathematics of general relativity?
So I think that it’s cool when art, some beautiful vision that’s cast by art, motivates us to try and to figure out what’s necessary to make something like that possible, or is it possible? And so yes, it’s cool to see that connection.
TD: When did you first learn of Miguel Alcubierre’s Warp Drive Concept?
SW: I think I became aware of the paper in ‘97. I was working at Boeing up in Wichita, Kansas. And I remember that there was a paper. I read it a few times just because I really enjoyed some of the implications of the mathematics he had put together with his little toy model. And it was just kind of neat to think about.
TD: When did the idea come to you to try and, for lack of a better term, ‘update’ that idea?
SW: So I started working in the space program in 2000. I did that in Houston, Texas. While I was working in the space program, I was thinking about this Advanced Power propulsion. I was thinking about this Alcubierre Warp metric. You know, it was not published in its canonical form. And so, in 2003, I published a paper in the journal General Relativity and Gravitation.
TD: And that was the start for you?
SW: Pretty much. I published the paper putting that metric in the canonical form because there were a couple of things that I was curious about. Some things didn’t quite make sense to me, but by putting it into canonical form, helped me figure out “how does this concept really work?” From the process of not being at warp to being at warp…what would that look like when you look at the mathematics? And the only way I could see to answer the question is to put it in the canonical form in 2003, so that’s what I talked about in that paper.
TD: What happened in 2011?
SW: I got asked to give a talk [about the warp drive] to DARPA and NASA at the DARPA 100 year Starship Symposium in 2011.
TD: And what did you present?
SW: So I didn’t want to just simply pull out the other stuff I was talking about with other space conferences before. I wanted to do something new. So, I did a sensitivity study on the metric. I looked at what happens when you change the parameters and the mathematics. Still, it basically comes down to how thick you make the toroidal ring and negative vacuum energy density. How thick or thin to make it, topologically? What does that do to the overall energy required?
And so, during that work, I had no ‘objective’ objectives, per se, other than just to explore. In the process of doing that, I discovered that by making that ring a little thicker, instead of being like a wedding band wrapped around your finger, it’s a little bit more like a lifesaver, was key.
So by making that ring thicker, it significantly reduced the magnitude of energy, making the trick work. So that’s where I published some stuff about a 10-meter diameter spacecraft with an effective velocity of 10c (10 times the speed of light).
And so, by using that optimization technique, I was able to reduce the amount of exotic matter from a Jupiter- sized amount down to something about the size of the Voyager spacecraft. So about two metric tons, or just under two metric tons. So that at least says the idea is initially mathematically possible. But it’s not feasible.
TD: Meaning, a theoretical amount of energy from a theoretical substance and a theoretically manageable amount?
SW: Right, so where I think we ended up with the work that we did, at least the idea was plausible. So instead of just being mathematically possible in our work, we potentially move it into the category of maybe it’s plausible. There are now two metric tons of this stuff we’re not quite sure exactly how to make.
Now, the interesting point, going back to the 2003 work that I did, some of the work that I was doing in 2003, those tools were showing those potential results, but that wasn’t what I was looking for at the time. But once I did the work in 2011, I happened to go back to my tools in 2003, and I was like, “Oh, that stuff was right there in 2003. Dang, how did I miss that?”
TD: When did you first join NASA?
SW: So I moved to Houston in February of 2000 to work for Lockheed Martin. I worked at Lockheed Martin for four years. And then I changed over to NASA. And, of course, I was working for NASA in that contract. So I was doing flight support for the shuttle robotic arm to build the space station. NASA work, but wearing a Lockheed Martin cap. So I crossed over as a former NASA civil servant in 2004. And then in 2009, I switched over to power propulsion with a specific focus on Warp.
TD: Did you come from a mechanical engineering background?
SW: I have a Bachelor’s and Master’s in mechanical engineering and my Ph.D. is in physics. So I changed disciplines when I got my Ph.D.
TD: And when did you start bringing your advanced propulsion work to NASA.
SW: When I changed from robotics into the power propulsion domain, I worked on a number of tasks associated with trying to incorporate Advanced Power propulsion in all of its aspects or all of its levels. One of the projects I worked on was pulling together a proposal to put a testbed on the International Space Station. So, we looked at incorporating electric propulsion power testbed that would live on the ISS. And then, we also looked at having some robotic interfaces on the platform where we can also test very large hall thrusters.
TD: Hall Effect thrusters?
SW: Yeah. So shortly after that, I worked on an effort to integrate Hall thrusters into the space station. So Dr. Jack Bacon and I worked on a special project for the program manager from the ISS at the time to investigate, “is it possible to integrate about 60 kilowatt Hall thrusters onto the International Space Station?”
TD: So, would that be for like small orbit maneuvers?
SW: Correct. Because the ISS is really big and heavy. However, it’s in low Earth orbit, so it does experience drag. And so, it was just something we wanted to investigate. Was this possible? Is there enough power? What are the software changes necessary? And so we did a lot of work to scope that out. It was a lot of fun to work on that and I think there were a lot of potential possibilities. But sometimes the lifetime of the space station is moved back and forth. And so that tends to change the cost for what you’re doing. So we ended up opting not to do that.
But, you know, I and others work really hard to educate NASA stakeholders on the value proposition of something like a Hall thruster, even with low power levels, on that kind of spacecraft. In the context of electric propulsion, it still provides value to a lot of things. And so now, as a result of that work, we have a human spacecraft with this architecture as part of Artemis. We’re going to have electric propulsion. So it’s really awesome to see that.
TD: I see a lot of ion propulsion and other things being used on satellites, or even I think there was a Japanese asteroid capture mission that used it for orientation, but I haven’t heard of anything included on any crewed capsule or ship. Would that be the first?
SW: I think that’ll be the first operational space-driven spacecraft, or human architecture spacecraft, with electric propulsion. That is a significant milestone. Because as you say, electric propulsion is all over on unmanned satellites, but this will be the first time it’s been used on spacecraft associated with human spaceflight.
TD: I was speaking to someone last year at NASA (because I was trying to track you down for a different Warp story I was writing), and they told me at the time that you left for the private sector and took your entire body of work on Warp propulsion with you. Is that accurate?
SW: Yeah, I have a lab here full of all my goodies from NASA. And so, we have a space act agreement with the agency. And as part of that, we have all the lab equipment at Eagleworks over here.
TD: All intellectual property, everything? You were able to take everything with you?
SW: Yeah. When I was working in NASA, we really didn’t try to go through and patent anything. Almost everything we worked on while at NASA fits into the category of Basic and Applied Science. Probably a little too early to try and really work towards patenting anything. I mean, there may be a time it’s right to do that, but there wasn’t at NASA.
And, the Eagleworks Laboratories, that’s something that I developed even before I was doing work at NASA. So Limitless Space Institute is where I’m at now. The laboratory that I have is called Eagleworks Laboratory. So, whether it was at NASA or here, it’s still the same facilities.
TD: How did that transition from NASA to Limitless Space take place? Was it something you helped create, or was it something that was being created and you were invited to join?
SW: Brian Kelly, our president, retired from NASA two months before I did.
TD: Was Brian someone you had already worked with?
SW: Actually, I had never met Brian before. He didn’t know me. So Brian worked flight operations. He was the head of FOD (Flight Operations Directorate). He picked all the astronauts who were going to fly, picked all the new astronauts who were selected to be astronauts. I mean, he has contributed so much to spaceflight, just an incredible human being. But because of our very different locations, we really didn’t have many opportunities where our worlds intersected directly. So neither one of us knew very much about the other.
TD: How did the two of you finally hook up?
SW: Before he retired, he was focused on the crew and flight operations and so forth. But after he retired, our benefactor [at Limitless Space] approached Brian about trying to stand up this effort that eventually became Limited Space. And so in the process of thinking about that, and looking at what their objectives might be, he was thinking about, “who do I contact about advanced power propulsion?”
So in the process of reaching out to his network, we got put in contact. And so he asked me to come over and talk to them about some opportunities. So I visited, and in the course of the conversation, it was apparent that he was asking for me to come in and help stand up Limitless Space Institute.
After a lot of thought and prayer, it really seemed like I could be very effective in this space. It seemed like the right opportunity and the right next step for me to take. And so maybe I could, I could kind of turn up the game on the domain by coming here in support of this institute, and doing things like championing Interstellar Initiative grants, where we can go through, and we can set up a two-year solicitation process where we can try and give the community, a lot of folks in academia, opportunities to write proposals to pursue this work that they’re very much interested in.
There are just no other pathways for them to get the resources they need for that work. And so when this opportunity came up, and I was thinking about all these things, I thought I could really do a lot more here.
TD: So you felt that, you know, for lack of a better term, like that magic, that connection that “hey, this is really the opportunity that’s worth leaving a place like NASA for.”
SW: Perfect metaphor. It was the right next step. Everything felt right.
To learn about the Limitless Space grants for advanced propulsion concepts, including Pulsed Fusion Drives, Directed Energy Propulsion, and even Traversable Wormholes, catch part 2 of this exclusive interview with Warp Drive pioneer Harold G. “Sonny” White.