Imagining Faster-Than-Light Travel

Posted on Wed, January 27, 2021

The idea that characters can fly from planet to planet, or star to star, defying current science and technology, is central to science fiction. Although some of these ideas predated the space age, after the 1950s, fictional depictions of space travel needed to suggest conceivable ways to cross interstellar distances to seem plausible. Some authors suggested faster-than-light drives, hyper drives, jump drives, worm holes, and black holes.

Scientific understanding of light speed as an absolute natural limit derives from Albert Einstein’s publications on special relativity in 1905, confirmed by his work on general relativity in 1916. In classical physics, speed has no limits. But relativistic theory shows that mass increases with acceleration until mass becomes infinite at light speed. Yet author E. E. “Doc” Smith imagined spaceships traveling faster than the speed of light in his “Skylark of Space” stories. Smith’s cover story appeared in the same issue of Amazing Stories in 1928 that included Philip Francis Nowlan’s first short story about Anthony (later “Buck”) Rogers.

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Within a couple of decades, the fictional idea of faster-than-light travel made intuitive sense to a public familiar with recent supersonic flights. In 1947, Chuck Yeager broke the speed of sound aboard the Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis. Writers extrapolated supersonic speeds into the idea of spacecraft traveling at multiples of the speed of light. Frank Hampson’s British comic Dan Dare offered one of the earliest uses of faster-than-light travel. In 1955, he introduced interstellar travel in “The Man from Nowhere” trilogy. The technology was inherently alien, however, and faster-than-light travel was not featured regularly afterward. Forbidden Planet (1956) was the first film to depict a fictional faster-than-light spaceship created by humans. From the exterior, the C-57D ship was an undifferentiated flying saucer. After a loudspeaker announcement, however, the crew stood in “DC stations” that held them immobile while the ship slowed. By the mid-1960s, however, as both the United States and the Soviet Union made regular human spaceflights, science fiction audiences became more intuitively aware of the time that it took to travel in space.

Model of the fictional starship Enterprise

Model of the fictional starship Enterprise was used in the weekly hour-long "Star Trek" TV show (NBC-TV), which aired from September 1966 until June 1969. (Gift of Paramount Pictures Inc., National Air and Space Museum, NASM2016-02354-000005)

The U.S.S. Enterprise created for Star Trek (NBC, 1966-69) represented a major leap forward. Walters “Matt” Jefferies, a WWII flight engineer and private pilot, used “aircraft logic” to design a vehicle with components that visually communicated their purpose. With the two engine nacelles, Jefferies effectively invented warp drives, fictional engines that could propel the ship at multiples of the speed of light. As seen in Star Trek: First Contact (1996), the first flight of Zephram Cochran’s warp-capable Phoenix demonstrated the mark of a culture that was ready to participate in interstellar civilization. Jefferies’ design raised the bar for imagined vehicles. After Star Trek, undifferentiated flying saucers and flame-spewing pointed rockets largely disappeared from fictional depictions. Instead, imagined propulsion that bent space-time or traversed alternate dimensions become more prevalent.

Rather than just having the vehicles fly faster, some science fiction suggested traveling through or outside of normal four-dimensional space (including time), either by jumping within ordinary space, utilizing hyperspace, or exploiting natural or artificial shortcuts through space. Beginning in the 1940s, Isaac Asimov included jump drives in the short stories that later became his Foundation (1951) series of novels. Because fictional jump drives turn long flights into direct hops, allowing ships to disappear from one place and reappear in another, they facilitate storytelling without interrupting it. The reimagined Battlestar Galactica (2003) uses the same kind of travel but calls the mechanisms “FTL drives.”

A production model of the Millennium Falcon

A production model of the Millennium Falcon was on display at the Museum in 1998-99 as a part of the "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth". (NASM)

The Star Wars universe postulates a hyperdrive, a computer-guided system that allows spacecraft to enter hyperspace at faster-than-light speeds and navigate to a successful exit at a distant destination. Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) reveals that the extensive navigational maps and rapid calculating ability of the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive computer are actually the downloaded memories of L3-37, a spirited and female-identified droid pilot.

The two-season program Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (NBC, 1979-1981) showed interstellar travel being accomplished using stargates. Four lights arranged in a diamond in space showed that the stargate had opened, offering access to hyperspace. A similar concept had a more physical presence in J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 (Syndicated & TNT, 1993-1998). In that show, external “jumpgates” shown using computer-generated imaging provided a physical infrastructure for generating stable vortices to hyperspace.

The idea of artificial space-time vortices as conduits drew power from speculation published in technical and popular literature. Speculation about wormholes must be distinguished, however, from black holes, which are real astronomical phenomena. Stories involving black holes often include time dilation. Einstein’s theories—including special and general relativity—explain that a person travelling near a massive gravitational field experiences time more slowly. The plot of director Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) employed time differences for dramatic purposes and also represented a giant leap in visual effects. To create the effect of the rapidly spinning black hole, theoretical astrophysicist Kip Thorne assisted the Interstellar production team. The resulting black hole appeared as a three-dimensional, spherical, hole in spacetime, drawing in all of the light around it. When the Event Horizon Telescope project imaged a real black hole in 2019, that image demonstrated how close to reality Interstellar’s fictional imagination had come.

The various aspects of a black hole

This explanation of the various aspects of a black hole shows the recent three-dimensional visualization. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman)

Although writers have been imagining travel to space-based destinations for hundreds of years, the use of faster-than-light travel as a narrative device remains relatively young. As the sound barrier disappeared and the space age dawned, writers began imagining ways for interstellar travelers to cross the immensity of space. More important, audiences came to expect plausible explanations of faster-than-light travel to consider the stories credible.

Dr. Margaret A. Weitekamp is the Chair of the Museum’s Space History Department and author of “Ahead, Warp Factor Three, Mr. Sulu”: Imagining Interstellar Faster-Than-Light Travel in Space Science Fiction.” The Journal of Popular Culture 52 (2019), 1036-57.