Jewish World Review
On Monday, if all goes well, a Stanford University physicist will watch his entire life's work blast into space on a powerful rocket.
The rocket will carry a single experiment that cost $700 million and was 40 years in the making. It is the longest-running mission in the history of the space program, and the most expensive experiment of all time - a classic or a boondoggle, depending on your point of view.
If it works as planned, Gravity Probe B will measure how space and time are warped and dragged along by the gravity of the spinning Earth - one of the stranger implications of Einstein's general theory of relativity.
"In one sense it's hard to imagine a simpler experiment," says Francis Everitt, the 70-year-old physicist who has devoted his entire career to the project. "It's going to be a very dull experiment once it's got going."
Yet building it proved so difficult that engineers at Stanford and Lockheed Martin had to invent a whole new suite of technologies, including the world's most perfect gyroscopes - quartz spheres the size of ping-pong balls that will spin 10,000 times a minute in a housing with a hairsbreadth of clearance.
It took a lot longer than anyone expected. The cost ballooned to five times the original estimate. As for the practical value of proving this particular point about gravity, even the program's defenders cheerfully admit that there is none.
NASA threatened to call the whole thing off seven times; there are some who think it should be cancelled even now, with the rocket and its precious payload sitting on the launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
"This experiment is almost half a century old. When it was conceived it was a brilliant idea, but since then many measurements have been made" that support existing theories of how gravity works, said Jerry Ostriker, a theoretical physicist at Princeton University.
Today, he said, there's no real point to going through with Gravity Probe B; other measurements have defined the nature of gravity well enough. And flying it will take money away from other space science programs, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, which is threatened with cancellation.
Ostriker says that if it were up to him, "I'd put it in a museum."
But fans of the project say it's vital to measure this one last predicted effect of gravity as precisely as possible, even if theorists think they know what the answer will be.
"I'm one of those people who feel you really have to do the experiment," said Eugene Parker of the University of Chicago, who has served on two committees that reviewed the project for NASA.
Too often, he said, scientists have assumed they knew the answer to some question and declined to test it experimentally, only to be proven wrong later.
Gravity is such a fundamental force, Parker added, that "you'd better get it right, and if you have the means to check out this last detail, OK."
There is agreement on one point: The project would not be alive today if not for the tenacity of Everitt, whose courtly manner hides a steely determination.
More than once he prowled the halls of Congress to lobby for the spacecraft, building a constituency that saved it from extinction.
"It's rare to go in and deliver the message to someone and they get it the first time," said Bradford Parkinson, the co-principal investigator for the project at Stanford. "Of all the experiments NASA ever tried, this may be the most difficult to explain."
But Everitt says it would be a mistake to underestimate the ability of the ordinary American to grasp Einsteinian concepts.
He likes to tell the story of a plane flight that found him seated next to a police officer from Chico, Calif. The cop shared some of his experiences; Everitt, in turn, explained Gravity Probe B.
"He got totally fascinated," Everitt said. "We shouldn't assume that people don't have curiosity about the universe. They really do."
To be sure, there are technological spinoffs. A giant Thermos used to chill the gyroscopes to just above absolute zero is now used for other space missions. And some of the ultra-precise navigational tools developed for the probe are finding their way into airplanes and tractors.
But the effect that the probe will try to measure is not apparent in our everyday lives. It becomes important only near incredibly massive objects, such as black holes and neutron stars.
That doesn't mean it will never prove useful, Parkinson said. It's impossible to say where basic scientific discoveries will lead. It took half a century, for instance, before Maxwell's laws of electromagnetism led to the harnessing of electricity, perhaps the single greatest engineering feat of the past century.
Everitt, who started work on the project soon after coming to Stanford in 1962, said he is often asked how he thinks the experiment will turn out: Will it confirm what people think they know, or find a fundamental flaw in our current ideas about gravity - and rewrite the history books?
"It's not up to us to have any opinion," he said. "What is up to us is to make sure we do the experiment right. None of us wants to have our prejudices affect how the experiment comes out."
Whatever the outcome, Gravity Probe B has already made a mark in educating young scientists and engineers. Seventy-eight people have earned doctoral degrees working on the program.
William Bencze, 37, is one of them. He started 11 years ago as a graduate student, figuring out a way to suspend the spacecraft's four quartz gyroscopes inside their casings so they stay pointed in the same direction without outside interference. The gyros are coated with niobium metal, and stay in place through the same sort of static cling that gloms up clothes in your dryer.
When a Delta II rocket bears his handiwork into space at 10:01 a.m. April 19, he'll be in the control room at Stanford, on the second floor of a tan, bland cube of a building, ready to lend his expertise if anything goes wrong.
But he says he'll be even happier if he can kick back, eat doughnuts and watch the probe glide into orbit: "That would be just fine by me."
The Gravity Probe B Web site is at http://einstein.stanford.edu/
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