Interstellar travel via propellant-less propulsion: Chatting with the inventor of the Mach Drive that NASA is funding


Update Feb 22, 2021 from James Woodward, via email:

Woodward emailed me this: “George Hathaway finished his replication and wrote up his report. He did what I asked with his torsion balance, but evidently went into the work prepared to find ‘vibrational Newtonian artifacts,’ that is, noise, but no real signal of the presence of Mach effects. And that is what he found. Ironically, underlying the noise is clear evidence of the Mach effects that I expected him to find. He and I (and others) have discussed his report and I wrote up a ‘commentary.’ He wrote rejoinder. I wrote a reply. And last weekend I wrote up an attempt at a non-physicist’s explanation for my email circulation. If you are interested, I’d be pleased to share as much or little of this with you. If you are interested, I suggest the email circulation stuff first.”

I’ve asked James for this commentary, and will add it when it comes.

Imagine a “rocket” that only uses electricity.

Have a ragtag group of physicists and engineers exploited a little-known feature of Einstein’s equations to built a true propellant-less space drive that doesn’t require reaction mass … just electricity?

James Woodward, physics professor emeritus at Fullerton, thinks so, and in this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier, we chat with him in depth about his invention.

NASA has funded new research into it, and the result if successful would be the ultimate EV … an electric vehicle that not only can propel a space ship to the planets and the stars, but also lift off out of gravity wells like Earth’s.

Scroll down to subscribe to the podcast, watch the video, and get the full transcript, and here’s the Forbes story for this TechFirst episode.

Subscribe: the NASA-funded Mach Drive space engine


Watch: interviewing the inventor of a space drive for propellant-less propulsion

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Read: could this engine drive interstellar travel?

(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)

John Koetsier: Have scientists and engineers built a true propellant-less space drive? Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier.

All space travel to date operates on reaction engines, as in Newton’s Law: Every action produces an equal but opposite reaction. Essentially, you throw stuff behind you really, really fast and you move forward. That doesn’t work very well for long trips … you can’t store enough reaction mass, you can’t take it all along, and all of it that you’re taking has to be accelerated as well.

So a physics professor and a few colleagues have built an experimental space drive that doesn’t require reaction mass … just electricity. And NASA has actually invested in it as well. To unpack what’s happening, what it means, what it looks like, we’re chatting with Jim Woodward,  who’s a physics professor emeritus at Fullerton. Welcome, Jim! 

James Woodward: Good to be here. Thank you. 

John Koetsier: Thank you for coming. It’s a real pleasure to have you. I’m excited about this. I’m excited to learn — I mean, I’ve always loved space, science-fiction, science, and exploration. So this is exciting. Let’s just start here: what have you built? 

James Woodward, inventor of the Mach Drive

James Woodward: Basically what we’ve built is what I refer to as “gizmos,” because they’ve been evolving over the years. Actually, it’s been quite a few years since the first ideas were formulated and all that. It’s been a long development process.

What it comes down to, is in the fall of 1989 I discovered a mistake that I had made in a calculation, which made me go back and look more carefully at some work that a Canadian electrical engineer actually had done back in the early 1950s. And what I discovered was that there was a possible mathematical path to making something move … and you’ve already got the video up of the thing moving, it’s going to wiggle.

John Koetsier: Yes.

James Woodward: There it goes, wiggling. Okay. Theoretically, unless there’s something called a slip-stick mechanism operating, that device should not wiggle. It’s actually got an internal component that I’ll explain in a few minutes, called a leckev [phonetic]— a stack of lead zirconium titanate discs in it that vibrates through a few hundred nanometers amplitude at about 35 kilohertz, 30 to 35 kilohertz.

That is to say, ultrasonically, and it should not move.

John Koetsier: No.

James Woodward: It should just sit there and wiggle. The wiggling is so small, it should not move. The fact that it moves on the steel dowels that support it is evidence for the existence of this unusual effect that I blundered onto by discovering a mistake back in the fall of 1989. Of course, all of it took a long time to get worked out and all that, and I suppose we’ll talk a little bit about that, but that’s really the nub of the whole thing.

I’ve succeeded in convincing a number of colleagues that this is sufficiently interesting, that it’s worth investing some effort and working on it. It’s passed muster with, in particular, a friend of mine who’s a world-class general relativist. So I’m certain that I haven’t done anything really incredibly stupid. 

John Koetsier: [Laughter] which is always a problem, of course, if you’re inventing something that has never, ever been seen before … never been attempted or conceived of even … you wonder, I mean, am I the crazy one here? Is something really — did I get something wrong?

What’s going on? Can you explain what is happening? So I’ll bring that up again and we’ll run it, and this is a test video that you’ve shared with me. And you’ve got your drive unit essentially there … it’s running right now, you see it moving. What is happening, physically, to make that move? 

James Woodward:  Let me explain the underlying physics. Basically what I discovered in the fall of 1989, was that the field equation that had been invented by this Canadian, George Luchak, back in the early fifties — which is just Newtonian Gravity written in relativistic terms, okay, consistent with special relativity — was that there was a term in his field equation which was not a standard field equation form.

And when I discovered what its origin was … its origin was inertia.

Okay, this term was present because if gravity is inertial in origin, then it has to be there. When you do some mathematical manipulations with that realization, you can put the field equation into standard form, but you’ll end up with a couple of extra terms which have to go on the source side of the equation. They’re transient terms, you can’t just turn something on and leave it on and then turn it off. You have to constantly make stuff change in order to make the term have an effect. And when you stop doing that, it goes away and everything looks exactly the way it was before. But those transient source terms are the basis of this effect.

So in effect what you do is you build a device that allows you to change the rest mass of a stack of lead zirconium titanate crystals, okay, so that they’re a little bit more massive at part of the cycle and a little less massive during part of the cycle. And that change in the mass couples to an enormous gravitational field that’s present in all of our lives all the time. You know, we’ve all been living in this — well, actually, it’s been around since the inception of the universe. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

James Woodward: It’s the gravitational field of what Aaron Smock [phonetic] called cosmic matter or the fixed stars.

It turns out that that field — if it properly accounts for inertia as Einstein insisted that it did in general relativity — that field is utterly gigantic. It has a strength that’s comparable to the gravitational field at the event horizon of a black hole. But since it’s the same everywhere you don’t detect it, except when you try and push something, then it pushes back, okay, that’s what causes inertia. The strength of that field in terms of the so-called Newtonian potential is equal to the square of the vacuum speed of light … which is gigantic. That’s the horizon condition for a black hole. 

John Koetsier: Wow. 

James Woodward:  So, inertial effects have very much larger consequences than what we normally think of as gravity, where it takes the entire earth to pull you down with one G of acceleration and all that. Gravitational fields, as we normally think of them in Newtonian physics — and indeed in general relativity, except when you’re talking about black holes or neutron stars — are relatively weak.

The standard comparison is the force of attraction between two electrons as compared to their electromagnetic interaction of repulsion. The force of attraction is typically about 40 orders of magnitude smaller than the electrical interaction. This is a problem in trying to get around spacetime quickly, finding a way to get around that 40 order of magnitude problem. [Chuckling]

John Koetsier: Yeah.

James Woodward: The way you do it, is by using inertia, because inertial effects because c squared as a magnitude of … well in SI units is about 1018 m2 / s (10 to the 18th meters squared per second squared). It’s a very large number. So if you use inertial effects and try it instead of trying to deal with gravity as you normally think of it, you’ve already got 20 orders of magnitude, roughly. Conceptually, the way this works is that there are three elements in the device that you saw on the rails. 

John Koetsier: Yeah.

James Woodward:  There’s on the right, a fluctuating mass. This is a mass in which you excite this fluctuation where it’s a little more massive and less massive periodically. What that works out to be in the earliest devices was a ring of capacitors, which you charge and discharge at some frequency. And the charging and discharging makes a mass fluctuate, but only if you have an actuator, which causes them to accelerate while they are charging and discharging periodically, okay, at the same frequency of the charging and discharging. Now, to get the actuator to actually push the fluctuating mass and make it accelerate, you have to have a third component, which is called the reaction mass. So what you have is — let me show you this … this is one of these new devices. The brass piece that you see in there. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

James Woodward: That’s a reaction mass. This is not complete. It has more parts to go on it, but as you can see, it’s designed so it can wiggle on these springs that mount it. And that’s part of one of the breakthroughs in this business, okay, the reaction mass. And then you have the actuator … I’ve got one of those here. This is a stack of PCD crystals … here it is. This one’s actually a bad stack, it’s about to get crushed. And then you have a cap which bolts the PZT stack onto the reaction mass — preloads it. Now you’d say, ‘Gee, those are only two components, you’ve got a reaction mass and an actuator. What’s the fluctuating mass?’ The trick discovered early on in this was that the actuator can be both the actuator and the fluctuating mass at the same time.

John Koetsier:  Wow.

James Woodward: When you apply in an alternating voltage to the yellow and black heavy leads in the picture that you’re looking at now, okay, it will cause the stack to extend and contract periodically at the voltage frequency. The other leads are for a strain gauge which is mounted in the stack so you can actually watch what’s going on in the stack at the time.

John Koetsier:  Right. 

James Woodward: Okay, next slide is you put that PZT stack on a reaction mass, and a cap which preloads it onto the reaction mass, and then you just apply a voltage.

Steiner Martins SM111 has a really neat property: if you apply a single frequency sine wave to the stack and you get just the right circumstances, it will cause harmonics, higher harmonics to come into existence. In particular, the second harmonic, because what you need to produce a force from something and it has a fluctuating mass, is another force which operates at twice the frequency of the applied voltage to the stack. Because the applied voltage to the stack produces the mass fluctuation at twice the frequency.

If you now have a double frequency mechanical oscillation, you can push on it when it’s more massive and pull it back when it’s less massive. You’ve got propelling, but you don’t have to throw it over and say goodbye. [Laughter]. You get to throw it over when it’s more massive and then because of this interaction with this inertial gravitational field, you can let it become less massive and then pull it back in. 

John Koetsier: Amazing.

James Woodward: And then you do the same thing over again, and you just do it over and over and over again … 35,000 times a second. 

John Koetsier: So in a really, really simplified way, what you’re doing essentially, is making something slightly more massive when it’s in a certain position, making it slightly less massive when you’re pulling it back, and therefore you’re using the inertial field that’s all around us to essentially move a vehicle. Is that correct? 

James Woodward: You got it. That’s it, that’s all there is to it. It’s this weird consequence of these transient terms in this field equation that I blundered onto 30 years ago. It’s those weird transient terms — they get multiplied by the local gravitational potential. But the local gravitational potential in general relativity it’s not just the potential due to local stuff, it’s a potential new-to-everything in the universe. 

John Koetsier: Yes, yes.

James Woodward: And it has a value of c squared, which vastly amplifies what otherwise would be a hopelessly undetectable effect. If just special relativity were true, you’d never be able to see this. It’s that coupling to that field that we all live in and we detect every time we push on something, it pushes back. That’s what pushes back.

So I was looking for a way of doing this, but I had no idea that that was how it would turn out to work. When I was — before the fall of 1989, I was looking for what in the field of exotic propulsion is called ‘anomalies.’ I was looking for an anomaly in the coupling of electromagnetism and gravity that would allow you to get some purchase to do the same sort of thing. It never occurred to me that you didn’t need an anomaly. [Laughter]. All you need is to look at this field equation, say, ‘Gee, that term doesn’t look right.’ That’s not — the technical term for it is that’s not the timelike part of a d’Alembertian then say, ‘Oh gee, but maybe we can get, extract the timelike part of the d’Alembertian from that term.’

And when you do that — which is possible only because of this gravitational aspect of inertia, okay — when you do that, you get these added transient terms that end up on the source side. So you don’t need an anomalous interaction between electromagnetism and gravity. You just need to realize that there’s this quirk in the mathematics.

And I’d like to tell you that it was brilliance and genius and all the rest of that, but it wasn’t. It was just dumb, damn luck. [Laughter

John Koetsier: Never underestimate luck. Never underestimate the sheer power of luckiness to stumble on something. So, you’ve devised some theory here. You’ve built an experimental model. We saw that there are some effects happening here. I want to ask how much thrust, if we can call it that, are you generating? How much power are you generating? And how many of these would you need to be operational in some kind of spaceship in a vacuum?

James Woodward: Okay, number one, It’s not my theory. It’s Einstein’s theory. 

John Koetsier: Okay, good.

James Woodward: I just did a calculation. No, I constantly have to correct people on this. ‘Oh, you’ve got a really neat theor—’ no, it’s not my theory. I’d like to be able to tell you that it was. Yes, the reason why we are here [crosstalk]—

John Koetsier: That’s really good news because a lot of people know about Einstein. A lot of people have tested his equations, and they’ve mostly withstood the test of time.

James Woodward: Yes. Yeah. Well, there are some historical works in this that make it a little bit more challenging to get this across than ought to be the case, but we’ll ignore them. Actually your viewers, if they want, can do a calculation for themselves to get the amount of thrust.

The device that they saw on the video — and I think there are two of them, and the other one may be a little bit more obvious — but the device, these devices when they’re working right, displace the device in the 30 kilohertz region by somewhere between a half a millimeter and a millimeter. So the amplitude of the excursion produced by the thrust is on the order of a millimeter or so, okay. That excursion takes place in about the time of a 30 second per frame film camera, video cam. So a webcam that’s taking these pictures, actually a Logitech BRIO, which is much better than the previous Logitech. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

James Woodward: Okay. It’s moving about half a millimeter to a millimeter. It does that in about the time of one frame; that is to say 30 milliseconds. And the mass of the device is about 125 grams. So knowing the mass, the Delta T, there are those … doing its thing … you can sit down and do the calculation.

If you do that calculation, what you’ll find is that the force speed that is necessary to move 125 grams a millimeter or so in 30 milliseconds, is well on the order of a few hundred millinewtons. Okay, I’m not claiming a few hundred millinewtons yet, but we’re counting on being able, hopefully — part of our problem is that this is a very high-Q system.

So you can’t just turn it on to a frequency and then just turn it on and have it produce thrust steadily at that frequency, because it heats up, and as soon as it starts heating up it drifts off the resonance. As a matter of fact, those of us who are still working on this, David Jenkins, in the Sacramento area, an electrical engineer, who’s developing a very light, very high power amplifier that will eventually go on an air sled that’s being built by Michelle Broyles and … oh, it’s near Evergreen, Colorado.

She’s putting together the air sled which is a frictionless system. It’s basically we’re going to put everything on the sled with the exception of some telemetered, preamplifier signal generation. And the preamplifier signal locking— [cat meowing] Yes, Mercy. My cat decided to chime in here.

John Koetsier: It’s all good, she’s allowed.

James Woodward:  Paul March, in Friendswood, Texas is developing the preamplifier arbitrary waveform generator stage of this. The reason why they’re doing that is because the little gizmo that you just showed, if you’re me, and you’ve run the thing and all that, you know that it’s not working on a slip-stick mechanism. But anybody else looking at it being a good skeptic would say, ‘Gee, maybe it’s a slip-stick mechanism.’

And there are arguments that you can make that it’s not, but it’s much better if you can just put on something where slip-stick mechanisms are functionally impossible and then show the thing still accelerates. That’s in progress right now. We hope within a month or two to have the air sled running and all that. We also have, by the way, anticipating one of the questions: is anybody else checking up on this? George Hathaway of Hathaway Research in Ontario, Canada has a couple of these devices and is indeed, probably as we speak, working on checking up on them. And NIAC, NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program from which we had a couple of grants over the last few years — NIAC is contracting with a fellow named Mike McDonald, who does propulsion work for the Navy at NRL.

He is scheduled — assuming that we’re still showing something that really works and all that, by the time the contract starts he’s going to be doing — he’s going to be checking up on us too. 

John Koetsier: Excellent.

James Woodward: We’re trying to build something that will really work, as opposed to something that we can fool around with it and have fun and all that, and it ends up sitting on a shelf and doesn’t go anywhere. 

John Koetsier: So let’s get really theoretical for a second. I understand that you’re building a device, you’re seeing some activity, it’s getting tested by multiple other people, and people are trying it in different environments — the air sled that you talked about as well — to ensure that there’s a real force happening here. 

James Woodward: Right.

John Koetsier: Let’s assume that goes well. Let’s assume that you can maybe even scale it up a little bit more.

What kind of force do you need to move a rocket? And I’m not talking about taking off out of a gravity well. You know, lifting off, off of Earth or something like that. I’m talking about something that is already in orbit or has been flung out of orbit even, by perhaps a starter motor or a chemical reaction motor or something — but you want to accelerate the travel to, let’s say, Mars or some of the other planets.

You know, how much force can you get out of this? How many can you stack up? I mean, what are the limitations here? And what do you need to do? 

James Woodward: You can stack up as many as you physically have space for. These things with the frame that mounts them are about six centimeters on a side, a cube, six centimeters on a side. So they’re very small. The figure of merit for these things is given in newtons per kilowatt, okay, how much force for a kilowatt of input energy. These things operate with a reactive power that’s a few hundred watts, but the actual power dissipated making the thing do its thing, turns out to be less than a watt.

And if that back-of-the-envelope calculation is correct of 100 millinewtons or thereabouts, okay, you’re talking about a figure of merit that would be on the order of what? Well, it’s 100 millinewtons times a thousand … would be the number of newtons per kilowatt. So 100 millinewtons, 10 newtons per kilowatt. 10 newtons per kilowatt is approaching heavy lift. 

John Koetsier: Wow.

James Woodward: You don’t need to chemical rocket to put these things in orbit when you get them working really well. You can just climb in your thing and turn the thing on. 

John Koetsier: That’s amazing. 

James Woodward: Motor up at some convenient—

John Koetsier: I had zero concept that that would be possible when I read some of your research on the work that was going on. I was assuming you’d always need a chemical rocket to get out of a gravity well, especially earth. You know, maybe not so much Mars or the moon or something like that, but I mean, if you could scale up to that point, then you’re essentially … electricity [laughing] is all that you need—

James Woodward: Yeah [crosstalk].

John Koetsier: To run your rocket. It’s the ultimate EV, right? It’s the ultimate electric vehicle. You can go anywhere in the solar system at least. 

James Woodward: Yes. Yeah, no, you can actually use it for interstellar missions too. But there are a lot of other technical issues you have to worry about then, because if you use these things to achieve some reasonable fraction of the speed of light, then you have to figure out what you’re going to do about deflecting junk that you encounter while traveling near light speed. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

James Woodward: And that’s a problem which I have not devoted a lot of thought to other than to note that, you know, even a small pebble hitting your craft, if you’re going at 40% of the speed of light, is enough to produce a large explosion. So, that’s somebody else’s problem as far as I’m concerned. 

John Koetsier: Yes. Yes. And the interesting thing is, I mean, interstellar is amazing, and I’m sure that if we can develop this drive in this effect then there’s some amazing possibilities for probes on the horizon for something like that. But for crude travel, probably our solar system is more like—

James Woodward: The next few years. 

John Koetsier: What’s that?

James Woodward: For the next few years. The first application of these things, assuming that we can solve some technical difficulties which do not involve unknown unknowns, they’re just known unknowns [chuckling]. That is to say they’re in principle tractable, and we can be reasonably certain that they can be solved. The first application would be for satellite orbital change in positioning and collision avoidance and stuff like that. Things that produce in fact, on the order of a few hundred millinewtons or thereabouts. And to do that, if you can get everything working in the electronics, you can do it with a simple device of this sort. Okay, centimeters six, six centimeters on a side cube, plus the electronics and other associated hardware. These can be run in a race; you can make a whole bunch of them and just mount them on something. Actually, I was thinking that for production engineering you’d probably want to figure out how to make them so that they can be plugged in to some ray holder, so that when one goes bad you just go and pull it out and stick another one in. 

John Koetsier: Replace a component. The satellite use case is ingenious because, I mean, we lose satellites because they run out of reaction mass—

James Woodward: Propellant.

John Koetsier: Propellant to maintain their orbit, right? And maintain their ability to aim in the right direction, other things like that. 

James Woodward: Yeah.

John Koetsier: Very, very interesting. And we know that we can build super long-lasting probes as well. I mean, the Voyagers are still [laughing] some of them are still running. 

James Woodward: Yeah. And you’ve got solar arrays as power source. You don’t have to worry about fooling around with some compact nuclear reactor or something like that. If you’re talking about getting to the outer solar system or ultimately interstellar missions — which is what these are ultimately aimed at, okay, I call them impulse engines because your impulse … banging on the thing over and over again.

Actually my colleague, Hal Fearn, who’s been working with me for the past eight years or so, likes to call them Mach Effect Gravity Assist impulse engines, or MEGA impulse engines. And that’s fine with me, that sounds pretty good. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. 

James Woodward: But these things are not warp drives or wormhole generators. 

John Koetsier: Unfortunate. Unfortunate. I would love to visit Alpha Centauri or something like that. You know, I mean—

James Woodward: Just step through a wormhole [chuckling]. Yeah. Yeah. They point the way to physics that may make that possible, okay, because the re-understanding of general relativity when you include inertia the way Einstein intended that it be included in general relativity, points a way to the possibility of negative mass. One of the transient terms in that equation I told you about is negative definite. And if you can do certain manipulations in just the right way, you can trigger this normally minuscule term and bring it up to amazingly large values. 

John Koetsier: Wow.

James Woodward: So wormholes and warp drives are not off the table as a result of this, but my guess is that people will make MEGA impulse engines and go tooling around and have their flying cars and all the rest of that, long before somebody figures out some clever way … but of course that’s probably not right. That’s probably because I’m old and conservative. [Laughter]. 

John Koetsier: Maybe. Let’s talk about—

James Woodward: Some clever young, just some clever young person is likely to come along and say, ‘Oh gee, well, if we do this and the other thing, we should be able to do so and so,’ you know, but—

John Koetsier: Yes, yes. We’ll hope for more happy coincidences maybe and some lucky discoveries and other things that just stumble upon. I want to ask you about this personally, obviously this has been your life’s work. You stumbled on something and you’ve toiled away at it for literally decades, and then found that there is something here. And others are testing that as well right now, as you talked about already.

What’s your personal mission here? And, you know, if you were to have a working Mach engine in your possession right now on a space travel-able ship, where would you go? 

James Woodward: [Chuckling] Good questions. I guess probably the answer to the first question is why did I devote my life to this? Because seemingly, especially even to a youngster, it would appear to be impossible and a waste of time. The answer to that question actually is included with a slight embellishment in Dan Oberhaus’s Wired long read that came out earlier this fall. I’d been interested in physics and generally the question of how to get around spacetime quickly and all that, from my late undergraduate days and graduate school. And during a hiatus in graduate school where I played flamenco guitar for a while … I ended up on the rooftop patio of Pensión in the Barrio Santa Cruz in Seville, in March of 1967, I guess it was. And back in 1967, satellite spotting was a popular activity. Okay, nowadays it’s you see a satellite passing overhead and it’s ho-hum and what else is new? But back in 1967, there were still, there weren’t a lot of them either for that matter, but there were enough. 

John Koetsier: But they were pretty big ones. 

James Woodward: Yeah, they were big and there were enough of them so that if you watched the sky for 10 or 15 minutes, you had a chance of seeing something. And one night we were all up on the rooftop patio and I watched this satellite, and having had a course in astronomy and a mother who was an astronomer, well, I knew how to predict great circles and all that, so I made a rough calculation on the basis of my initial watching of this satellite passing overhead of where it would continue along its normal satellite path.

And as I watched, the thing started slowly deviating from the great circle path that I had pretty firmly established from my initial observations. And it changed the plane of its orbit by in excess of about 40 or 50 degrees, while I watched it. Oh, sometime in the preceding month or two, I’d read an article in either International Time or Newsweek about satellites, and they had remarked that commercial satellites could change the plane of their orbit by a degree or two, and that it was speculated that military hardware might be able to change the plane of its orbits by 10 or 12 degrees — but certainly nothing more than that, because it takes a lot of energy to change the plane of the orbit of a satellite. It’s not something where you just say, ‘Oh gee, I think I’ll go that way’ and so on.

‘Cause after all, you’ve got a fair amount of mass and you’re traveling at 17,000 miles per hour, which is a lot of momentum and you have to redirect all that momentum. So I knew that there was nothing that we had built that could possibly do what this satellite had done. And it occurred to me, though it didn’t occur to any of my friends, that somebody knew how to do something that we didn’t know how to do, you know.

And I thought, gee … so I’m interested in gravity. I was unusual in that regard as an undergraduate. Gravity was, in the early to mid 1960s, only just becoming a big field in the area of physics. And I said, well, gee, that looks like something that would be interesting. See if I can figure out how they did that. Then I worried about getting a job and stuff like that. So I found my way with this as an avocation and all that, that took up such spare time as I had. And I worked on it, a long time. I had a professor at NYU, Malvin Ruderman, who I asked some questions about general relativity once, and I told him I was having a hard time with it because, you know, I’m not that smart. And he said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. Everybody has a hard time with it … even those who are really smart have a hard time with it.’ [Crosstalk]

John Koetsier: [Laughing] I’m sure that was very humble of you. But let’s say that you—

James Woodward: No, no, no, no … let me finish the story. 

John Koetsier: Okay.

James Woodward: He said, ‘If you want to be the world’s expert in something, pick a really hard problem and be prepared to work on it for years.’ 

John Koetsier: Nice.

James Woodward: Okay, he said, ‘Really smart people you don’t have to worry about, because they won’t try and scoop you until you’ve shown that you can actually do something with it.’ [Laughter]. And he was right. There are a lot of us out there trying to figure out how to do this. And, you know, I’ve been more lucky than I suppose most people have. 

John Koetsier: Well, I’m glad you have been. So let’s go to the second half of the question now— 

James Woodward: Okay, where would I go? 

John Koetsier: You’ve got a working ship, spaceship with this new propulsion system actually functioning and working … where do you go?

James Woodward: Actually, the first ship, I stay here on earth [laughter]. Earth is really a pretty nice place when you get right down to it. 

John Koetsier: Well tested.

James Woodward: We’re working on it, but it’s still a pretty nice place, you know. And remember that space junk … you’d have to have a pretty good way of deflecting the space junk and all of that. 

John Koetsier: Sure, sure.

James Woodward: So probably for the first ship or two, I’d stay here and make sure that it doesn’t get blasted to smithereens because the deflection system failed and got taken out by a marble-sized object or something like that. But once they’ve got it working and all that, where would I go?

You know, I haven’t really thought about that very much … if you could really, actually do deep space exploration, what would you do?

The obvious answer is to take a close look at the outer solar system, because this would make outer solar system travel relatively straightforward and not that expensive, you know. That would be the obvious place. LeGrange points or the gravitational focal lens point of the sun would be another obvious place to go. Use the sun’s gravitational field as a lens, in effect, to image stuff very, very much farther away. Interstellar missions? The obvious key candidate is Proxima Centauri, which, as I understand, it’s got — it’s a red dwarf and it’s got a habitable zone planet that might be worth taking a look at. 

John Koetsier: Amazing.

James Woodward: But to be honest with you … initially, the motivation was, it was like looking at the answers in the back of a textbook. You know what the answer is, and then you have to figure out how to get to the answer from what you know. That was the main thing, and I didn’t worry about the other stuff.

John Koetsier: Very cool. 

James Woodward: Then what I discovered, I figured that I would be attacked for the transient sources and all of that. And it turns out that has only marginally been the case.

Mainly what I get attacked for is saying ‘Einstein was right about inertia.’ Which I must admit has really surprised me. He was right about inertia. It really is a gravitational effect, you know, and I did not expect that. I, as a matter of fact, when I figured that out, I figured I might be professionally rehabilitated a little bit, [chuckling] because I wasn’t attacking general relativity anymore in the eyes of the people in the mainstream.

John Koetsier: Yes.

JiJamesm Woodward: And it didn’t work out that way, because the mainstream had decided — while all of this was going on in my own life — the mainstream had decided that inertia is not gravitationally induced … and they’re wrong about that. [Laughter

John Koetsier: I’ll leave that question to another day. I’m just super happy to have had the chance to chat with you and to learn a little bit more about the Mach engine and what you’re doing, how you’ve been working on it, some of the theory behind it, and some of the potential behind it as well.

If I got that spacecraft, I think I would do sort of a new grand tour of all the planets and certainly go to Jupiter and try to not get fried by its EM fields and all that stuff … but check out Europa, many other things. I want to thank you for spending this time with us, James. I really do appreciate the time that you shared and the insights that you shared, and I wish you the very best success in the future with getting this scaled up to an actual prototype that we can — that NASA can test in space.

James Woodward: Yeah. Thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure. And grace of the great spirit, these things will continue to work. Let me mention real briefly my favorite Einstein quote: “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

John Koetsier: Yes.

James Woodward: There’s an awful lot of coincidence in life. It’s just recognizing that you have been lucky enough to have happened upon a coincidence, you know. As I’m a historian of science, as well as doing this sort of stuff, and being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and all that, probably is more important than anything else in the process of discovery. Just … anyway, thank you very much for the opportunity to talk about it. 

John Koetsier: It is totally my pleasure. For everybody else, thank you for joining us on TechFirst as well. My name is John Koetsier. I appreciate you being along for the show.

You’ll be able to get a transcript of this podcast in about a week at The story at Forbes will show up after that. Plus the full video is always available on my YouTube channel. Thank you so much for joining. Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.

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