The interstellar ramjet conceived by Robert Bussard may have launched more physics careers than any other propulsion concept. Numerous scientists over the years have told me how captivated they were with Poul Anderson’s treatment of the idea in his novel Tau Zero. Al Jackson takes a look at Bussard’s concept in today’s essay, referencing its subsequent treatment in the literature and adding a few anecdotes about Bussard himself. The original paper was submitted on February 1, 1960 to Astronautica Acta, then edited by Theodore von Kármán (a ‘tough judge,’ Al notes) and published later that spring. Although the ramjet faces numerous engineering issues, its ability to resolve the mass-ratio problem in interstellar flight makes it certain to receive continued scrutiny.
by A. A. Jackson
Writers of science fiction prose noticed the difference between interplanetary flight and interstellar flight earlier than anyone. Various fictional methods of faster-than-light (FTL) were invented in the 1930s, John Campbell even inventing the term ‘warp drive’. Asimov’s Galactic Empire is only facilitated by FTL ‘jump-drives’. Slower than light interstellar travel made an appearance in Goddard and Tsiolkovsky’s writings in the form of ‘generation ships’, usually called ‘worldships’ now.
As far as I know, the first ...