NASA Warp Drive: Why Sci-Fi Says It's a Bad Idea


While many people were worrying about “the day after tomorrow,” smarter minds over at NASA were actually busy developing warp drive, a system for space travel that should allow us to traverse the universe at speeds faster than light. However, as impressed as I am by the efforts, the sci-fi nerd in me is not overly fond of what might follow.

The warp drive system is a reimagining of the Alcubierre Drive, a mechanism by which “space-time could be ‘warped’ both in front of and behind a spacecraft.” Following some increasingly complex scientific lingo, the end result should be faster-than-light travel.

Michio Kaku (celebrity professor and physicist at CUNY who, according to my friend at the College of Staten Island, treats undergraduates as an afterthought) called it “a passport to the universe.” I, however, am not signing up to get on the first ship.

First, there may be a potential downside to traveling faster than light. According to research conducted at the University of Sydney, a vehicle moving at such speeds will collect particles along the way. Once the ship stops, the particles burst and release energy. Of course, this is not some sort of little “pop” where the fun doesn’t stop. Instead, this energy is actually big enough to make the ship go boom.

Suddenly, the same rules apply for space travel as they do for regular traffic: getting there fast is not as important as getting there alive.

Of course, there are risks in all space travel; that’s why stratosphere, mesosphere, and ionosphere all end in “fear.” That’s no reason to stop scientific advancement.

The real reason for not wishing to master space travel is that science fiction has left no good outcome for what might happen if we head down this path. As District 9 and Avatar showed us, this desire to travel far and wide betrays a somewhat imperialist instinct.

Instead of optimizing the usage of our local resources, we seem intent on actually traveling to other planets in search of energy and wealth. Do we really wish to give ourselves the tools to potentially overtake something else to pillage instead of learning how to treat the earth we have with respect? And once we have said tools, will we ever really feel compelled to make our own planet better instead of just heading out?

The other sci-fi option, however, is even scarier than our own greed. What if the things we find are alive, sentient and not overly friendly? Be it Sovereign the Reaper from Mass Effect, the Covenant from Halo, or Krang and Kodos from The Simpsons, none of the aliens we have ever imagined coming across have been particularly friendly.

As Stephen Hawking once put it, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans.” Granted, this system essentially means we would be visiting them before they would visit us but do we really wish to accelerate the potential for interplanetary contact when it may result in a star war?

Hawking is a proponent of avoiding possible contact with other life forms and I agree; we simply should not head into someone else’s turf without expecting return visitors, particularly when we don’t know if they are friendly. Luckily, while Hawking does call the possibility of life out there “inevitable,” he still contends that most of it is likely just microbes.

Either way, science fiction has conditioned me to fear the day we make contact with aliens. As Hawking once brilliantly said, “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet.”