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The University of Washington made headlines in October this
year when it announced a novel spacecraft design that, if ever technically
realized, could make it possible for astronauts to travel to Mars and back in
90 days, rather than undertaking the imposing multiyear roundtrips that conventional
chemical rocket propulsion requires.

Dubbed MagBeam
, the method claims one significant advantage over using a
20th-century-style rocket: The spacecraft and its propulsion system are

MagBeam propulsion would use ionic particle beams to accelerate
the passenger compartment of a spacecraft to the Red Planet, removing the
weight and capacity of a chemical engine from the propulsive equation. Freed
from these constraints, the passenger compartment could constantly accelerate,
rather than rely on limited rocket burns, and could therefore reach Mars far

If this sounds like science fiction, you’re right. Renowned
authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle first explored a very similar method of
propulsion in their 1974 sci-fi novel, Mote
in God’s Eye
. In that novel, space travel occurs (among other means) by use
of ground-based laser cannons, which effectively broadcast power to
interstellar craft, offering efficiencies similar to the MagBeam concept.

Mote in God’s Eye
offers a laundry list of classic sci-fi contraptions, including a pocket-sized
computer (bearing a striking resemblance to a modern-day PDA), the use of
natural volcanism to alter the atmospheric composition and climates of settled
human worlds (a process with startling echoes in humanity’s own homegrown
atmospheric greenhouse issues), and thermal superconductors (which would
constitute a holy grail in the construction of electronic heat sinks), to say
nothing of such science-fiction stalwarts as wormhole-hyperspace travel and protective
energy shields.

But for all its innovation and prescience, especially as
applies to spacecraft propulsion, Mote in
God’s Eye
doesn’t represent the point of origin for the idea of using
broadcast energy propulsion to power and motivate a spacecraft. That credit
belongs to another lauded science-fiction scribe, who formally set down the
idea of laser-based propulsion more than a decade before Niven and Pournelle
published their take on the concept.


What science-fiction scribe was the first to formally
outline the concept of laser-based broadcast propulsion for spacecraft?

That credit belongs to the late, great Robert L. Forward,
who published a short paper titled “Ground-Based Lasers for Propulsion in Space”
in 1961.

For those unfamiliar with Forward, he was the definition of a
“hard” science-fiction author, with his works rigorously grounded in
the known principles and possibilities of science. At the time of Forward’s
death in 2002, most (including Forward himself) considered his 1980 novel Dragon’s Egg—which explored the high
concept of creatures capable of surviving near the surface of a neutron star—to
be one of the better textbooks on neutron star physics available, despite its
clever disguise as a work of fiction.

Forward wrote 10 other science-fiction novels. But for all
his renown and success in that arena, fiction was a mere sideline. Forward was
first and foremost an engineer, with a list of papers and patents that would
make a modest individual blush.

At the top of that list was his pioneering Ph.D. work in
gravitational radiation astronomy, including the construction of the first bar
antenna designed to that end. That antenna now resides in the Smithsonian.

Though Forward technically retired in 1987, he continued to
work as a consultant for the U.S. Air Force and NASA on unorthodox propulsion
concepts—which should come as no surprise to readers of this trivia question.
Forward’s ideas encompassed a wide range of non-rocket propulsive methods,
including Star Trek-esque antimatter fuel sources, electrodynamic tethers (whose use could potentially help clean up
orbital debris), and, of course, lightsails, which would use lasers or
possibly solar wind to push spacecraft around.

With his ideas echoed in both later science fiction and
science fact, it’s no wonder that Forward is a favorite of academics,
aficionados, and a fair share of Trivia Geeks.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This quibble goes all the way back to the Oct. 6 edition of
Geek Trivia, “May the
Schwartz be with you.”
TechRepublic member Bborrini took issue with a reference to AOL Time Warner:

“There is no such thing as AOL Time Warner… Time
Warner dumped AOL off its name. The board of directors of AOL Time Warner Inc.
voted last year to rename the company Time Warner Inc. and to change its New
York Stock Exchange ticker symbol back to ‘TWX,’ which it used before its 2001
merger with America Online Inc.”

Pardon me while I wipe the
“yes-I-actually-do-work-in-the-Internet-industry” egg off my face.
This was a no-brainer. Thanks for the catch.

The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic
books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.