In the late 1980s Powell was approached by Sir Tom, fondly known as “Papa Tom”, to build a machine that could be driven simply by compressed air, which acts as a propellant, that in theory is recycled as a sealed unit.
Papa Tom, achieved numerous outstanding goals during his life. He graduated from Harvard University in the US and was also recruited to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), where he was a member of the aeromedical monitoring team.
The theory of the drive, which was named the Davis Universal Drive, was that it would be able to propel a vehicle from Earth to Mars and return.
Powell said he and Papa Tom were trying to get away from the idea of rockets as a means of travel, and once joked about attaching the drive to a wheelbarrow.
Conventional rockets are sent into orbit around space bodies (such as the earth and moon), to attain velocity to be able to reach their destination’s orbit and return again.
Unlike a rocket, which uses all its propellant in the initial take of two minutes and 39 seconds, the drive would stay controlled by recycling its energy in a completely sealed unit.
This would theoretically ensure that the drive would be able to moderate its velocity by either speeding up or slowing on the journey to Mars, as well as on approach to the planet.
Once the vehicle arrived, it would allow the researchers on board to complete their tests and return to Earth. The current generation of rockets can only make a one-way trip.
“We built three of these drives using compressed air,” Powell said, “And we experimented with them to attain more efficient ways of implementing different models.
“Papa Tom was extremely excited when we were able to get the drive to travel across the workshop floor, after nearly three years of trials and changes.”
Powell said that when Papa Tom went to New Zealand as the Cook Islands High Commissioner, he took the prototype drive with him.
He further researched the invention until he went to Australia, later returning to Rarotonga without it.
“The story died then with him when he passed away, and I have no idea where our finished product ended up,” Powell laments.
All that remains now are a few pieces of the experimental models that were put aside.
“I guess I would be the only one left that helped Papa Tom make his theory of relativity come true.”