Brave New World

Feeling Antigravity’s Pull

Can NASA stop the apple from falling on Newton’s head?

“Don’t call it antigravity research,” Ron Koczor pleads. He’s a physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and he’s talking about a project he’s been working on for almost a decade. “Call it ‘gravity modification.’ ‘Gravity anomalies.’ Anything but antigravity. That’s a red flag.”

When people find out that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has researchers working on sci-fi stuff like antigravity—or rather, “gravity modification”—the red flags do indeed start waving. Reputable scientists like Koczor earn polite disdain from colleagues (or worse, from funders of research). But truth’s truth: NASA has been studying the manipulation of gravity for at least 10 years, as have nongovernment researchers.

NASA began its work after a Russian physicist named Evgeny Podkletnov published an article in the peer-reviewed journal Physica C in 1992. Podkletnov claimed that a device built around a superconductor and a magnet could shield an object from gravity. The trick, he said, was to make a superconducting disc about a foot in diameter, chill it, levitate it over magnets—a nifty property of superconductors is that they repel magnetic fields—and set it revolving like a compact disc. Podkletnov said an object placed above that contraption lost 0.3 percent of its weight. The object itself didn’t change. Rather, gravity’s effect on it lessened.

If that effect could be harnessed and strengthened, the aerospace industry would be upended. Vessels bound for space wouldn’t have to ride atop massive, barely controlled explosions. All the energy human beings expend moving things around, from cargo to cars, could be reduced or eliminated. And post-Einsteinian physics would have to be rewritten to explain what the hell was going on. Podkletnov called the effect “gravitational force shielding,” and even in the absence of a good theory to explain the phenomenon, other researchers took notice. “Because his experiment and results were published in a peer-reviewed, scientific journal, that gave it a level of credibility,” Koczor says.

After Podkletnov published his article, it took NASA until 1999 to figure out how to make a large, thin superconducting disc. Ceramic high-temperature superconductors are brittle as cheap china, and the discs kept shattering. Once they solved that problem, NASA paid Columbus, Ohio-based SCI Engineered Materials $650,000 to build the entire apparatus. But Podkletnov had called for a disc with two layers, one superconducting and one not, and SCI didn’t solve that engineering challenge until last year. Then they hit another roadblock. The disc wouldn’t spin. SCI engineers stuck a rotor through the disc’s center to turn it mechanically, but Podkletnov specified 5,000 revolutions per minute. SCI’s device barely pulls 30 rpm.

Why not just ask Podkletnov how to build the thing? SCI brought him over to consult a couple of years ago, to little avail. “His excuse basically was that he was a ceramics physicist, not an electrical or mechanical engineer, and other people built the device for him,” Koczor says. “Draw your own conclusions. All I know is, if I were a principal investigator on something like this, I would know the size and thread-depth of every screw in the damn thing. But you know, the Europeans and the Russians, they’re different. They’re much more, ‘this is your job and this is my job.’ So it’s plausible that he didn’t know the details.” It might not matter. SCI’s contract is ending, and Koczor’s budget to explore “way-out physics” is spent. He hasn’t got the money to actually test the device even if it did meet Podkletnov’s specs.

But researchers outside NASA are working on the problem, too. This summer Nick Cook, a writer for Jane’s Defence Weekly, reported that aerospace giant Boeing was pursuing antigravity research. Boeing denied it. “We are aware of Podkletnov’s work on ‘anti-gravity’ devices and would be interested in seeing further development work being done,” said a company statement. “However, Boeing is not funding any activities in this area at this time.” Note Boeing’s use of the Clintonian present tense. They never contacted Jane’s to ask for a correction, Cook says. Meanwhile, British aerospace company BAE Systems says it’s keeping an eye on the research, and that it had once funded its own antigravity project, Greenglow.

Unfortunately, Cook strains his own credibility somewhat.A couple of weeks after his Jane’s piece appeared, Cook’s book on antigravity research, The Hunt for Zero Point, came out. In it, he claims that the Nazis built an antigravity device during World War II. Its absence from present-day science, Cook says, implies a vast “black” world of secret antigravity aircraft that might explain the UFOs people see over Area 51. He’s a careful investigative reporter, but once you start talking about UFOs and Nazi antigravity you’re not far from hidden tunnels under the White House full of lizard-men disguised as Freemasons.

Even without Nazis, there are plenty of reasons to doubt Podkletnov.My e-mails to the account listed on his recent articles (not peer-reviewed) went unanswered. Even more problematic, I can’t find the institution he lists as his affiliation in Moscow. “Eugene always expressed his worries that others could copy his work, although as far as I know he never applied for a patent,” Giovanni Modanese, a collaborator of Podkletnov’s at the University of Bolzano in Italy, wrote in an e-mail (using a Western version of Podkletnov’s first name). “Nonetheless, at the scientific level if one wants a confirmation by others and a successful replication, one must give all the necessary elements.” Well, yeah. Modanese says that the current version of the device, now called an “impulse gravity generator,” is simpler and could be built “by a big-science team of people expert in superconductivity.A Boeing spokesperson didn’t respond to follow-up questions. So, either there’s nothing going on here, or it’s an X-File.

And the science? Ten years is a long time to go without replication. Combine that with Podkletnov’s cagey behavior and it’s enough to make even sci-fi geeks like me lose hope. But like the core of any good conspiracy, antigravity research has the ring of plausibility. One of the outstanding problems in physics and cosmology today involves the existence of so-called dark matter and dark energy. They’re by far the main constituents of matter in the universe, and nobody knows what they’re made of—researchers have only inferred their existence from gravitational effects. Coming up with a new theory of how gravity works might explain that, though it’d be a scientific revolution on a par with relativity. “Changing gravity is in the cards,” says Paul Schechter, an astronomer at MIT. “But so far no one’s been able to do better than Einstein.” Still, Einstein worked in a lowly patent office. Ron Koczor works for NASA.