It’s a bad bet,” says Robert L. Park, a University of Maryland physicist who directs the Washington, D.C., office of the American Physical Society. “It’s absolutely mysterious why NASA would bother to spend its money on this sort of thing.” That’s what a lot of physicists are saying about a NASA program with a highly controversial goal: to produce an antigravity device. The very notion strikes most scientists as far-fetched, or worse. So why did the agency decide to give it a try?

It all started with a peer-reviewed scientific paper published by Finnish scientist Eugene Podkletov in 1992. Podkletov claimed to have built a gravity shield that consisted of a 12-inch disk of superconducting ceramic levitating in a magnetic field. Objects placed above the disk showed a weight loss of between 0.5 and 2 percent, he said. Such a device, by producing even a 1 percent resistance to gravity, could reduce the cost of every spacecraft launch by thousands of dollars.

A few scientists are open to the idea that exotic quantum physics reactions might be able to absorb some of gravity’s pull, but no one has succeeded in duplicating Podkletov’s results, and Podkletov himself has become a reclusive figure. NASA decided to spend $600,000 to prove or disprove the theory once and for all. Superconductive Components of Columbus, Ohio, is building the prototype antigravity device based on Podkletov’s specifications. If the experiment succeeds, both physics and aerospace will be revolutionized. But if not, NASA will have spent a lot of money proving something many physicists think they already know.