The evolution of warp drive is a long and often complicated tale. Ever since the first flight of Zefram Cochrane almost 3 and a half centuries ago, humanity, and later, the Federation, have been determined to build engines that go faster, further, and at less cost in terms of both fuel consumption and environmental damage.
The most basic warp drive design has changed very little in terms of theory. Warp coils compress the space in front of the ship whilst extending the space behind it, before propelling the vessel into the compressed space. The higher the warp factor, the more compressed the space gets.
In the olden days, warp speed was powered by fusion reactors, which rarely gave a warp factor higher than 1.4. Nowadays, deuterium and anti-deuterium spiral down coiled helical paths into the reaction chamber where they annihilate each other inside crystals of dilithium, producing the necessary energy with which to energise the warp coils. The more tightly concentrated the helix, the more fuel can be pumped into the reaction chamber safely, and the faster the ship can go. Astonishingly high speeds have been recorded using conventional warp drive, however the generally accepted maximum speed of a warp drive under test conditions is factor 9.992.
Professor Clarkson's lecture on the design intricacies of warp drive will teach you more about the construction and maintenance of the engines, but this lecture is designed to teach you about the design history of warp engines past, present, and future.
I'm sure you all know the story of the first NX-class Starfleet vessels Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, and how their at the time revolutionary warp 5 engines played a crucial part in the founding of the Federation. The warp 5 project, the brainchild of the legendary Henry Archer, the father of Captain and later UFP President Jonathan Archer, was designed with the intention of taking humanity to other solar systems without the need for generational ships. What the warp 5 engine ended up doing, however, was provide a template for warp drive design for the next 120 years.
From Archer's Enterprise right up until the end of Captain Kirk's first five-year mission, the Archer engine, as it came to be known, was right at the heart of Starfleet as a whole. Several experimental engines and upgrades to the Archer engine were proposed during this time- such as adding a temporal shift to the warp coil balancers (the original "time warp") or using multiple reaction chambers. However, no improvement to the engine affected performance efficiently enough to warrant wide-scale inclusion in Starfleet vessels. It was not until 2270 that the warp drive underwent its first major refit.
The vertical helix, or Schumacher engine, as it came to be known, is still in use in every Starfleet vessel today. Providing a power output that was totally perpendicular to the fuel flow resulted in fuel efficiency increasing almost sixfold. Ships entering service in the latter end of the 23rd century enjoyed a significant advantage over older vessels, an advantage comparable to thatof matter/antimatter reactions over nuclear fusion.
The Schumacher engine is still in service today, still the backbone of Starfleet, 130 years on. However, that is not to say that it will always be the case.
Starfleet's first experiments with Transwarp drive first came about with the development of the Excelsior-class vessel in 2285. However, repeated failures when it came to creating transwarp conduits led to the cancellation of the transwarp experiment and the continued use of the Schumacher engine.
For those of you unfamiliar with transwarp theory, rather than compress space like conventional warp drive does, transwarp actively folds space and provides 5-dimensional tunnels outside of normal space, allowing for incredible speeds. As with warp drive, transwarp speeds come in factors- the greater the factor, the tighter the fold in space is, and the greater the velocity. A ship travelling at transwarp factor 1 will be travelling at a speed equivalent to a warp factor of 9.9993. Vessels navigating well-travelled transwarp routes gain a speed advantage, much as ships travelling at warp drive do. A ship travelling an often-used path at a transwarp factor of 5 can cross the entire galaxy in a matter of minutes. The starship Voyager's return from the delta quadrant is the perfect example of such a journey.
Whilst Starfleet's ongoing experiments with transwarp are unsuccessful at present, most new ships are fitted with the capacity for transwarp coils to be installed later, if need be. Even ships as early as Nebula class can be outfitted with transwarp coils following minor modification to the engine configuration.
Whilst transwarp may appear to be the ultimate form of travel at first glance, we must not discount the possibility that there will in future be even faster forms of interstellar travel. In the 19th century, a vehicle reaching a speed of 200 kph was considered extraordinary. In the first half of the 20th century, the sound barrier was seen as the ultimate obstacle, and before Zefram Cochrane's pioneering flight, many believed warp speed to be physically impossible. All of these misconceptions were quickly laid to rest, as shall be the misconception that there is an upper speed limit to travel throughout the universe.
Whilst the belief that Warp 10 will never be acheived seems correct at first glance, that is not to say that we shall never be capable of travelling at a speed very close to it. Artificially created wormholes allowing for travel from side of the galaxy to another in mere seconds are being researched by Starfleet experiemntal astrophysics even today as a viable replacement for transwarp drive, a technology we have not even perfected as of today.
However, the most exciting prospect for interstellar, or even intergalactic travel, lies not with technological advancements, but with evolutionary advancements.
I'm sure you are all familiar with non-corporeal beings who appear omnipotent or nearly so, most notably members of the Q continuum who appear to bend space and time entirely to their will. However, when I was much younger than I am today, I was aboard the old Enterprise-D as a civilian, the 15-year old son of the ship's Chief Medical Officer. One of the first alien encounters we had aboard the ship was that of a mysterious alien, a 'traveller' from Tau Ceti, a supposedly insignificant planet along the very outer edge of the Federation's border with the Cardassian Union. He was able to manipulate space and time with his thought alone, propelling the Enterprise to speeds inconceivable even at transwarp. The second and third jumps propelled us a combined total of two billion light-years in a mere matter of minutes.
The way he did this was to focus the propulsion using the power of his thoughts. So little is known about Tau Ceti and its inhabitants that to this day no one knows how he was able to do this, but with transwarp we are able to travel in potentially five dimensions at once- perhaps, just perhaps, thought is the sixth dimension that will allow us to leave our prior conceptions about space travel and warp drive behind forever, and begin finally exploring the universe as a whole in the same way a young child, moving house for the first time, explores his new home, his new playground.
Thank you for your attention.
Professor Wesley Crusher, lecturing at Warp History 102, "Past, Present and Future of Warp Drive", Starfleet Academy, San Francisco, Earth, Stardate 79226, March 12th, 2402