Former astronaut and NASA head Charles Bolden says the agency wants to one day design a vehicle that goes faster than the speed of light.
"One of these days, we want to get to warp speed," he told a group at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Tuesday. Bolden was discussing the future of American space exploration. "We want to go faster than the speed of light, and we don't want to stop at Mars."
Devising a ship that goes faster than the speed of light—once confined to the realms of Star Wars and Star Trek—is quickly becoming a goal scientists around the world are setting their sights on.
Monday, Harold White, a scientist with NASA's Johnson Space Center, discussed a theory that would allow a spaceship to travel through the space-time continuum at speeds of up to 10 times the speed of light. White told space.com that his findings "change [traveling at warp speed] from impractical to plausible and worth further investigation."
While White is thinking up concepts to get to warp speed and performing small-scale lab experiments, other NASA scientists are working on a heavy launch rocket that will eventually take man to Mars and may usher in a new era of space exploration. But in order to travel beyond our solar system, Bolden says NASA or another space agency will have to have a major breakthrough.
"We're on the sixth, seventh generation of jet engines, but we're still for the most part on the first generation of rocket engines," he said. "We are trying to figure out the next generation of rocket propulsion."
Shuttering the space shuttle program, which Bolden says cost $2 billion annually, and allowing private industry to focus on low-earth orbit has given NASA the latitude to focus on eventual missions to Mars and beyond. Bolden says NASA is as focused as ever on continuing its human spaceflight program.
"Some have claimed that we're adrift, that we have no clear human space missions. That could not be further from the truth," he said. "Those who perpetuate that myth are hurting the space program. We have a series of deep space missions planned."
Most imminently, NASA is designing the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, which will be tested in 2014, with its first manned mission planned for 2021. That vehicle, he said, "will take us to asteroids, Mars, and probably back to the moon."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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