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Prior Visions of Star Flight

by Marc Millis

Here is a holiday gift from Tau Zero as compiled by TZF’s founding architect Marc Millis. It’s part of Marc’s continuing effort to find earlier references to the interstellar concepts — many of them in fiction — that we routinely ponder today. Some of these go back to the early 20th Century and in some cases the 19th. Compilations like this are always works in progress, as we found when putting together a list of interstellar propulsion concepts for the first chapter of the book Marc and Eric Davis edited, Frontiers of Propulsion Science, where one memory triggered another and the list kept growing. Readers are encouraged, then, to add other references to older material, as those of us who delight in prowling through old science fiction magazines have access to a mother lode of fictional precedents. I’ll also mention that this post will be the last of 2011 — as I did last week, I’ll skip the Friday and Monday posts in honor of the holiday, with the next post appearing on Tuesday, January 3.

I am indebted to the following volunteers who helped me finish these lists of inspirational starflight visions, both fictional and engineered: Brandon Vernon, Curtis Wilbur, Tatiana Covington, Yusif Nurizade, and Geoff Landis.

These lists of noteworthy fiction and engineered interstellar ships are not complete lists, but rather those that had more influence than the rest. In some cases I’ve added my personal reactions. Enjoy!



Year, Concept / “term” / “Ship name,” Author / Designer, Name of reference.

1880, “Antigravity” term coined, Percy Greg, Across the Zodiac.

1928, Faster-than-light first mentioned, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, Skylark series.

1931, “Hyperspace” term coined, John Campbell, Islands of Space.

1932, “Space Drive” term coined, John Campbell, “The Electronic Siege,” Wonder Stories.

1935, “Space Warp” term coined, N. Schachner, “The Son of Redmask,” Astounding Stories.

1941, First colony ship (multi-generation), R. A. Heinlein, “Universe” / “Common Sense” / Methuselah’s Children.

1950, “FTL” as acronym coined, Fritz Leiber, “Enchanted Forest,” Astounding Science Fiction.

1951, “Warp Drive” term coined, M. Gibbs, Letter in Marvel Science Stories.

1951, “Klaatu” saucer, Harry Bates, Edmund North, Robert Wise, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

1956, “United Planets Cruiser C57-D,” Irving Block & A. A. Adler, C. Hume, F. M Wilcox, Forbidden Planet.

Millis comment: I did not see this movie until long after Star Wars had been out (some time in the 1980s). When I did finally see it and knowing its creation date, I was seriously impressed. Even the opening narrative makes sense. The ship dealt with the differences in FTL and slower flight well, and I was delighted that it did NOT use rockets. Landing scene done well (image courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).

1956, “Twin Paradox” used in literature, “Torchship,” Robert Heinlein, Time for the Stars.

1958, “Matter Transmitter,” Poul Anderson, The Enemy Stars.

1963, “TARDIS” (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), Sydney Newman, D. Wilson, C. E. Webber, Dr. Who.

Millis comment: To me, the most stimulating part of this vehicle is that it is larger on the inside than outside – good fodder for pondering. I did not discover Dr. Who until the late 1980’s.

1966, “Starship Enterprise NCC-1701,” Matt Jefferies and Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek.

Millis comment: I grew up watching Star Trek after the Apollo Moon landings when I was at that impressionable age. This was the fiction that provoked much of my early thinking about physics and star flight. The occasional logical inconsistencies (e.g “Wink of an Eye”) fueled as much thought as the unknowns that needed to be to solved. I remember being frustrated by not being able to find out which parts of the ship’s technology were just fiction and which were based on extensions of works in progress. That unfulfilled desire led me to some of the thoughts behind Tau Zero.

1967, “Galileo Seven” shuttle, Matt Jefferies (interior) and Gene Winfield (exterior), Star Trek.

Millis comment: This specific vehicle has an even fonder place in my memory than the starship Enterprise, since this ship was on the scale I could imagine owning and operating myself. And even more than that, this ship was THE major icon for my childhood ponderings for how to make such a vehicle real. In my early teens I would imagine this ship hovering over my driveway, and then I would imagine throwing rocks at it and poking it with a stick to try and decipher how it might be hovering (typical boy way of analyzing things, eh?) The trajectory of the rocks would vary depending on the levitation method. These mental exercises led me to realize what I would have to study in school to figure these things out on my own. I have yet to write down and share such ponderings in open publications, but look forward to doing so some day.

1970, Runaway relativistic speed and collapse of time, (via Bussard Ramjet), Poul Anderson, Tau Zero.

1971, “Valley Forge,” Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, Steven Bochco, Douglas Trumbull, Silent Running (PG note: Be sure to read Larry Klaes’ essay on this movie in The Space Review).

1971 “Boom Tube” (interdimensional portal/transporter), Jack Kirby, Waves of the Mind.

1977, “Millennium Falcon,” George Lucas, Star Wars.

Millis comment: When this vehicle hit the screens it helped reenergize my enthusiasm, but I was not impressed by its operations. Unlike Star Trek, which hit me in my impressionable years, Star Wars emerged when I was already studying physics in college. It became clear after a few minutes of watching the movie that Star Wars was more about entertainment than speculation, and was absent the kind of provocations of Star Trek, the Outer Limits, and the Twilight Zone. As much as that Falcon looked cool, it was NOT thought-provoking. I was entertained and energized, but it did not stimulate my imagination.

1978, “Infinite improbability drive” / “Heart of Gold,” Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Millis comment: Finally, a different space engine than the ubiquitous warp drives and hyperspace! In addition to the great humor of the Hitchhiker series, I really like this propulsion concept. It was fun, funny, and intellectually provocative.

1984, “Laser-pushed sail,” Robert Forward, Rocheworld.

1984, “3-man thermal pod,” Earl Mac Rauch and W. D. Richter, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.

Millis comment: I am one of the few people who love this movie because of its delightful, complex absurdity. Regarding inspirations, there is a moment near the end of the movie when our hero, Buckaroo Banzai, connects jumper cables to a car battery to get the “thermal pod,” in which he is plummeting to suddenly start levitating. That cause-effect moment hit me hard. The notion of a car battery powering the levitation propulsion on a little pod was heart warming, in a delightfully absurd way.

1985, Bubble of isolated inertial space, Eric Luke and Joe Dante, Explorers.

Millis comment: There was a scene where a pre-teen is riding inside a transparent-invisible sphere that flies around in all directions and goes right through objects (like the ground) while the pre-teen remains protected. Although not explained in the movie, the behavior of that device was as if the internal inertial and gravitational environment is disconnected from the external inertial and gravitational environment. It matched several of my prior imaginative sessions.

1985, Wormhole Generator, Carl Sagan [Kip Thorne], Contact.

1986, “Trimaxian Drone,”(morphing spacecraft) Mark H. Baker, Michael Burton Disney, Flight of the Navigator.

1994, “Wormhole networks,” Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, Stargate.

Image: A screenshot from the science fiction television series Stargate Atlantis, one of several TV spinoffs from the film.

1999, “Planet Express,” Matt Groening, Futurama.

1999, “Protector,” Howard, Gordon, Dean Parisot, Galaxy Quest.

Millis comment: I thoroughly enjoyed this parody, in particular the role of the enthusiastic, believing fan, and the contrast between fiction fandom and reality (albeit the movie’s ‘reality’ is fiction too).

2009, “ISV Venture Star,” (It’s noteworthy for having thermal radiators), James Cameron, Avatar.



Year, “Ship Name” Ship Type, Author/engineer, name of reference, Publisher.

1958, “Project Orion” using nuclear detonation propulsion, S. Ulam, T. Taylor, & F. Dyson, “Nuclear Pulse Space Vehicle Study,” General Atomic.

1960, “Bussard Ramjet” using on-the-fly-fusing of indigenous space protons, R. Bussard, “Galactic Matter and Interstellar Flight,” Astronautica Acta.

1977, “Voyager 1 & 2” using a chemical rocket, JPL et al (http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/spacecraft/index.html), Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

1978, “Project Daedalus,” using a nuclear fusion rocket, Alan Bond, et al, British Interplanetary Society.

1984, Laser-beamed sail, Robert Forward, “Roundtrip Interstellar Travel Using Laser-Pushed Lightsails,” Journal of Spacecraft & Rockets.

1985, “Starwisp” using beamed microwave energy to sails, R. Forward, “Starwisp: an Ultralight Interstellar Probe,” American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

1987, “VISTA” using a nuclear fusion rocket, Charles D. Orth, “VISTA – A Vehicle for Interplanetary Space Transport Application Powered by Inertial Confinement Fusion,” Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

1987, “TAU (Thousand Astronomical Units)” using nuclear-electric ion propulsion, JPL, et al, “Tau — A Mission to a Thousand Astronomical Units,” Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

1988, “Project Longshot” using nuclear pulse propulsion, Beals, K. A., M. Beaulieu, F. J. Dembia, J. Kerstiens, D. L. Kramer, J. R. West and J. A. Zito, “Project Longshot: An Unmanned Probe To Alpha Centauri,” U. S Naval Academy.

1999, “AIMStar” using antimatter catalyzed nuclear propulsion, Raymond A. Lewis, Kirby Meyer, Gerald A. Smith and Steven D. Howe, “AIMStar: Antimatter Initiated Microfusion For Pre-cursor Interstellar Missions,” Pennsylvania State University.

2003, “Innovative Interstellar Explorer” using nuclear electric rocket, Ralph McNutt, “Mission Design for the Innovative Interstellar Explorer Vision Mission” NASA (ongoing).

2009, “Project Icarus,” using nuclear fusion rocket, Icarus Interstellar (numerous papers, ongoing).


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Marc G Millis December 29, 2011, 11:54

    Note: This is deliberately an incomplete list. I only included items that were significant in some way, even if only on a personal level of how they struck me. Complete lists become too long to digest. If you want to add an item to these lists, please state why you think it is important to you.

    Thanks! ~ Marc

  • Ed Reed December 29, 2011, 15:55

    Hmm…, I’d have included 2001 – A Space Odyssey (1969) and its monolith-provided inter-stellar passage ways as an earlier example of wormhole networks than Stargate, although I agree the later mechanisms were interesting in their own right.

  • Connie McManus December 29, 2011, 17:44

    Man oh man did you take me down memory lane with your list of books/movies! What a good read that was! Thanks!

    I would like to suggest the starship in Star Gate Universe. It refueled/rejuvinated itself by passing through the corona of a star. I don’t know what kind of drive that would be, but I was blown away. Keep in mind, I’m a biologist, not a physicist. Happy New Year!

  • A. A. Jackson December 29, 2011, 18:17

    Though not exactly science fiction , generation ships in SF were immensely influenced ty J. D. Bernal’s 1929 essay The World, the Flesh & the Devil. An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul.
    A remarkable exposition , futurism before the name existed.

  • Sean the Sorcerer December 29, 2011, 18:25

    Your mention of Boom Tubes and Stargates got me thinking: if we’re going to speculate freely about ideas for interstellar travel, why are we always thinking in terms of rockets and other objects physically traversing vast distances, versus ways to “fold space” where we are? Aren’t spaceships a rather primitive, slow way to get around, and for cosmic scale exploration aren’t they going to be fairly useless? A trip to Alpha Centauri is barely a step beyond a moon landing or a walk to the corner store, on the scale of the accessible universe! So I’d like to see more discussions of radical, paradigm-shattering ideas for galactic and intergalactic exploration that stretch the mind to the breaking point (and beyond). Perhaps I should register the domain andromedadreams.org, or bootesvoiddreams.org?

  • Alex Tolley December 29, 2011, 19:10

    Iconic starships from movies and tv that I would include are:

    Fireball XL5 (from the Gerry Anderson’s puppet tv show of the same name)
    Spacecraft capsule (with hibernation capsules) from Planet of the Apes (1968) – loved the simplicity of the conical shape.
    Jupiter II (Lost in Space tv series) – the most famous saucer shape?
    Liberator (Blake’s Seven)
    Nostromo (Alien) – especially liked the escape capsule Narcissus

    I also like the craft in the Solaris remake.

    And almost any of the ships painted by Chris Foss for SF covers – e.g. Asimov’s Foundation trilogy:

  • Ron S December 29, 2011, 22:03

    “Cavorite” from Wells’ “First Men in the Moon” ~1900. This was 20 years before general relativity became widely known so it was understandable to think it plausible that gravity could be shielded against in a manner similar to electromagnetism. Although his description of its properties and application is a bit fanciful, he does try to show how difficult it is to control and avoid a variety of mishaps.

  • ljk December 29, 2011, 23:21

    Happy 47th Birthday to the original Starship Enterprise!

    Posted on December 29, 2011

    On December 29th, 1964 – forty-seven years ago today – the original filming model of the U.S.S. Enterprise was delivered to the Howard Anderson Company. Model maker Richard C. Datin, Jr., who worked for the company and oversaw the efforts of craftsmen Mel Keys, Vernon Sion, and Volmer Jensen, constructed the 11-foot “miniature” from a 1-foot prototype Datin himself built. The prototype and the larger model were of course based on the design created by Star Trek production artist Walter M. “Matt” Jefferies.

    After taking possession of the model, Datin would make a few minor adjustments prior to its use during the filming of the original Star Trek series’ first pilot, “The Cage.” He subsequently would make alterations to the model for the second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and again once the show sold to NBC and filming began on the series’ first season.

    Full article here:


  • Stan December 30, 2011, 2:23

    We mustn’t forget the most fun sci-fi movie ever made: 1974’s Dark Star. Dealing with boredom is the main problem, until a planet-killing bomb gets stuck in the bomb-bay and the crew has to have a philosophical discussion with it, trying to convince it not to detonate right there.

  • Tim December 30, 2011, 2:45

    Surely Miguel alcubierre’s 1995 warp drive paper deserves a mention? It prompted further research, and was inspired by the enterprise listed up there.

  • Christopher Phoenix December 30, 2011, 3:44

    I’d like to add the spindizzy from James Blish’s Cities in Flight series, otherwise known as the Dillon-Wagner Gravity Polarity Generator. The spindizzy is an antigravity device that grows more efficient with the amount of mass it is lifting, making it possible to lift entire cities and hurl them into space. This device was an early influence on my notions of antigravity and starflight.

    The spindizzy is based on principles contained in an equation coined by P.M.S Blackett, a mid-20th century British physicist. Blackett attempted to correlate the rotation and magnetic fields of large rotating bodies, such as the Earth, Sun, and a star in Cygnus. It brought Isaac Newton’s gravitational constant and Coulomb’s constant together. Blackett’s equations have been disproved by more accurate measurements and the discovery of magnetic field reversals on the Earth and Sun.

    James Blish’s extrapolation was that if rotation+mass produces magnetism via gravity, than rotation+magnetism could produce antigravity. The spindizzy produced a field that altered the magnetic moment of all the atoms within its influence.

    The effect of a spindizzy was to encase a city or ship in a shimmering globe which behaves as if its inertial and gravitational environment is disconnected from the external inertial and gravitational environment. In fact, one of the characters states that a spindizzy ignores all the gravitational fields around it, does not suffer from inertia, and does not obey the speed of light limit. Not only that, but spindizzy fields hold in the atmosphere of a flying city and deflect meteors. How convenient…

  • Securis December 30, 2011, 6:53

    1999, “Planet Express,” Matt Groening, Futurama.

    I couldn’t agree more. My personal favorite especially because of it’s dark matter engine which do not move the ship, but instead move the universe around the ship, allowing it to go faster than light.


  • A. A. Jackson December 30, 2011, 12:02

    Jump Drive thoughts.
    For Warp drives, it was that remarkable SF writer Jack Williamson in The Legion of Space , 1934, who just flat gives us , without a lot of technobabble , the first reactive drive that acts on curved space time! Sound familiar?
    I can only guess, but some scientist/engineer such a Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, and really smart nonscientist SF writers had become familiar with Einstein’s general relativity. Someone, I would not be surprised if it was some physicist science fiction fan, in the 1930’s , having fun with extrapolations, leveraged off the idea of curved space time and mathematical topology, a well-developed field at the time, thinking somehow someway with an advanced technology it might be possible to manipulate space-time, I am not sure we will ever know who that physicist was.
    By the time John W Campbell took over the editorship of Astounding Science Fiction in 1938, there was not only his “Space Drive” , but ‘hyperdrives’ , ‘hyperspace’, ‘jump drives’ (that one came to have another meaning !), hyperdrive, a whole plethora of names for FTL were invented.
    By about 1940 SF writers had become tired of the solar system as a stage (not that it went away, interplanetary adventures continued and still do today). One could do so much more on a larger vista. I suppose the best example from the 1940s is Asimov’s Foundation Series, all completed before 1950. Asimov never really cared to technobabble about his FTL it was a facilitator for constructing a vast narrative on a huge canvas.
    There was a huge explosion of stories that used FTL in the 1940s. I think the kicker that stuck with us old time SF readers was A.E. Van Vogt’s “Far Centaurus”, 1944, almost a shaggy dog story. A. E. was a wry and clever short story writer of SF, I can’t say as much for his novels.
    I think my most ‘wow’ moment with FTL occurred in about 1954, and as is easy to guess it was Robert A Heinlein. My favorite so-called ‘juvie’ by Heinlein is Starman Jones (1953). It happens near the end of chapter 7 called Eldreth. Our young hero Max using the Ms Eldreth’s scarf . Here is the passage:
    Max: “…we’re heading out to a place where space is really flat, not just mildly curved the way itis near a star. Anomalies are always flat, otherwise they couldn’t fit together — be congruent.”She looked puzzled. “Come again?”
    “Look, Eldreth, how far did you go in mathematics?”
    “Me? I flunked improper fractions. Miss Mimsey was very vexed with me…But you told me that all you went to was a country high school and didn’t get to finish at that. Huh?”
    “Yes, but I learned from my uncle. He was a great mathematician. Well, he didn’t have any theorems named after him — but a great one just the same, I think.” He paused. “I don’t know exactly how to tell you; it takes equations. Say! Could you lend me that scarf you’re wearing for a minute?”
    …It was a photoprint showing a stylized picture of the solar system….
    “Here’s Jupiter. to go from Mars to Jupiter you have to go from here to here, don’t you?”
    “But suppose I fold it so that Mars is on top of Jupiter? What’s to prevent just stepping across?”
    “Nothing, I guess. Except that what works for that scarf wouldn’t work very well in practice. Would it?”
    “No, not that near to a star. But it works fine after you back away from a star quite a distance. You see, that’s just what an anomaly is, a place where space is folded back on itself, turning a long distance into no distance at all.” —- Starman Jones – R.A. Heinlein
    If that is not the sui genius of storyteller’s verisimilitude I don’t know what is.
    That is without ever saying it, the description of FTL travel using a ‘wormhole’. How Heinlein knew about it is probably not a mystery but I have never found out.
    Einstein and Rosen’s paper in Physical Review , 1935, is called The Particle Problem in the General Theory of Relativity. Einstein was by this time in pursuit of a unified field theory. The idea was to thread a ‘massless’ Schwarzschild like solution of GR with an electric field. Actually the word ‘bridge’ is indeed used in the paper, though if one were strict it should be called the Weyl-Einstein-Rosen bridge, or heck just flat the great Hermann Weyl – wormhole, since he had proposed this model in 1921!
    The wormhole solution was not taken up again until the 1950s when John Wheeler started a long, the rest of his life, embrace of general relativity. The beautiful embedding diagram we know today is a result of one of Wheeler’s students Martin Kruskal and independently by Hungarian-Australian mathematician. George Szekeres.
    However, in 1962 John A. Wheeler and Robert W. Fuller showed that this solution was unstable, the same is true of rotating wormholes too.
    In 1985, CIT physicist Kip Thorne was asked by Carl Sagan to devise a hypothetical traversable wormhole. Thorne and his collaborators then created what was a remarkably simple solution that would in theory connect two distant places in the universe. This wormhole would not rip its occupants apart, would stay open for the duration of a trip, however, it would require a never-observed form of exotic matter whose total energy is negative.
    Since that time there is a whole new field of study for traversable wormholes. However ,as Leonard Susskind says, “ It’s one thing to argue that theory gives rise to many possibilities for the Laws of Physics , but quite another to say that nature actually takes advantage of all the possibilities.”

  • Connie McManus December 30, 2011, 15:30

    Reply to Sean the Sorcerer’s notion of ships being primitive and slow:
    You are probably right about that, but rockets with their propulsion technology and the ships that will transport us are where our cultural/technological history has led us. Rocket science is what will enable us to acheive space flight sooner than learning how to fold spacetime. As intriguing as that idea is, it’s impossibly far, far away from our current abilities. But who knows? On our way to discovering how to acquire FTL engines, we may discover how to fold spacetime – or use multidimensional jumping to get from one place to another. Perhaps FTL and spacetime folding go hand in hand – who knows. Rober Jordan used the folding of spacetime in his series, The Wheel of Time, but it wasn’t by way of technology, it was through special abilities possessed by certain characters.

    So, Sean the Sorcerer – I, for one, would like to hear your ideas on the folding of spacetime- Inquiring Minds Want To Know!

  • Tony P December 30, 2011, 22:36

    Can’t believe no one has mentioned the ships from Dune that fold the space between 2 points so the ship can transverse great distances. They were basically big cigar shaped arks that held other ships that would either stay on board awaiting the next jump or descend to the planet.

  • NS December 31, 2011, 5:36

    In the original “Dune” space folding was done by machines, but required Guild Navigators (mutated humans who could see the future) to execute it at at time when it would result in a safe completion of the journey.

    The first non-fiction discussion of interstellar travel I read was “Journey to Alpha Centauri” by John Macvey (written I believe in the mid-1960s). The first part of the book was (IIRC after 40+ years) a discussion of the problems of interstellar flight, and concluded with a fictional journey by a generation starship.

  • Bill Christensen December 31, 2011, 11:38

    You might want to check out my site Technovelgy.com. I’ve accumulated about 2,100 science fiction “inventions” which may be viewed alphabetically in the Glossary of SF Inventions or in historical order in the Timeline of SF Inventions. Each entry has a text quote.

    I haven’t had time to go through this entire post and comments, but I’ll start with the first couple of entries. As far as I know, the word “antigravity” does not appear in Greg’s 1880 novel; however, he does describe the concept in his discussion of “apergy“.

    As far as I know, the first use of the word “antigravity” in science fiction is in a 1932 story by J.M. Walsh (see the entry for antigravity).

    The phrase “faster-than-light” does not appear in Smith’s 1928 Skylark story. However, he does describe a vessel that travels at many times the speed of light. As far as I know, the first use of the phrase “faster-than-light” is in John W. Campbell’s 1931 story Islands of Spac (see the entry for faster-than-light).

  • Paul Gilster December 31, 2011, 12:05

    I second Bill’s comment. His site is excellent and should be a regular stop for Centauri Dreams readers interested in the interplay of science and science fiction.

  • A. A. Jackson December 31, 2011, 16:01

    I do believe that from a technical point of view I do believe that Eugen Sänger
    may been the first to envision the engineering physics for interstellar flight in a 1953 paper:
    . Zur Theorie der Photonenraketen. (Vortrag auf dem 4. Internationalen Astronautischen Kongreß in Zürich 1953).- Ing. Arch. 21 (1953), S. 213-226.- Probleme der Weltraumforschung, Verlag
    Laupscher, Biel 1954, S. 32-40.

    The is anecdotal evidence that Sänger proposed the idea of photon propulsion as far back as 1933.

    He did publish two extensive monographs on photon propulsion:
    Sänger, Eugen (1956). Zur Mechanik der Photonen-Strahlantriebe. München,: R. Oldenbourg. pp. 92.
    Sänger, Eugen (1957). Zur Stahlungsphysik der Photonen-Strahlantriebe und Waffenstrahlen. München: R. Oldenbourg. pp. 173.

    Yes this is the same Eugen Sänger, who along with his engineer wife Irene Bredt invented the Silbervogel, the basic physics of which came to be used in the Space Shuttle Orbiter. (By the by they did this in the 1930’s using slide rules!)

  • A. A. Jackson December 31, 2011, 16:51

    Interstellar flight in the visual media.
    Unless someone knows different I think the first appearance of interstellar flight in film was The Day the Earth Stood Still, it is all implied, I don’t think Klaatu ever says explicitly he came over interstellar distance, but it’s the only logical deduction.
    1951 also brought us The Thing from another World, implicit again, but seems ol James Arness, as the Thing, could not have come from the solar system, given 1950’s state of planetary knowledge. (Arness never wanted to talk about his involvement with that film.)
    Interstellar flight is more explicit in This Island Earth (1955), I think this is the first use of a hyper-drive in a SF film, all be it done a little silly. (Odd film, follows SF writer Raymond F Jones novel for the first half, and deviates into a goof ball story.)
    The 1956 Forbidden Planet came out of left field as far as we SF fans were concerned. It is the first Space Opera in the modern SF prose sense ever made. (I don’t count the rather clunky comic book Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials , which belong to a branch of SF that John W Campbell banished.)
    Forbidden Planet borrows lock stock and barrel every bit of of the more sophisticated SF space opera nomenclature from the prose form. It’s a bit of mystery since there is no science fiction writer associated with the film. Rumor I have heard is that Irving Block and Allen Adler, the creators of the story were ardent reader of modern SF prose. The coloring added using William Shakespeare’s The Tempest has always seemed a little too hyped by me.
    Then a 10 year break before we get SF space opera again with Star Trek.
    I think I related elsewhere how I got into a long conversation with Gene Roddenberry in 1966, long before he was a celebrity , and how he related to me his fondness and use of modern SF prose in the TV series.

    Alas if only more of our great SF prose would be used as source material for film and TV, not sure I’ll live to see the day.

  • Bill Christensen December 31, 2011, 20:56

    As far as I know, the first use of the term “matter transmitter” occurs in the 1931 story The Conquest of Gola by L.F. Stone (see the entry for matter transmitter for details).

    The idea of a laser-pushed sail does belong to Robert L. Forward (and not Niven and Pournelle, authors of the 1974 classic Mote in God’s Eye). However, Forward published the idea much earlier, in a paper in 1961; see my discussion in Technovelgy entry on laser cannon.

  • John Q December 31, 2011, 22:04

    I thought I would attempt a New Year’s message to the readers of Centauri dreams. I was reading Robert Crossley’s wonderful biography of Olaf Stapledon and on p. 254 came across the following. It concerns H. G. Wells’s “allegorical novel The Brothers,” published early 1939. Wells apparently wrote the novel in a “foul,” “pessimistic” mood, understandable given the circumstances at that time. In the novel, one of the titular brothers prophesies an unknown distant date “when the monstrous discrepancy between the the scale of our lives and the starry intervals will cease to be a disharmony.”

    We are now once again in a period of “monstrous discrepancy” and the odds of future harmony are not looking good. Gloomy as I get at times, I never doubted that humanity could do it, that whole stellar harmony thing, but it is nevertheless difficult to be optimistic given human frailty and its penchant for self-destruction. I think of that failed Russian Mars probe, set to re-enter spectacularly early January. One doesn’t want to look upon the failure (there have been so many of them after all) as an omen, and yet the temptation is there.

    A lot of first-rate, visionary thinking has occurred in the past, as this fine article demonstrates, and the Centauri-Dreams site has been a continual encouragement to all that good thinking will continue in the future. May next year, if not happy, remain promising.

    Earth of the Present ~~> And then a miracle happens ~~> The Stellar Future.

  • ljk January 1, 2012, 16:46

    In the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu said he came from “250 million miles” away. That would be roughly halfway to Jupiter from Earth. If they meant 250 million light years, that might be ridiculous. Maybe he meant 250 light years, which would make sense for an interstellar civilization. Obviously the filmmakers did not think the audiences of the day would understand a light year, so they made Klaatu speak what sounded like a really distant number of miles.

    Reminds me of the tag line for E.T., the Extraterrestrial, where he came from over 3 million light years away. That would put E.T.’s home world past the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy. And if they meant 3 million miles, that wouldn’t even get him to Venus. And if they meant 3 billion miles, that would put our little alien friend aroun Pluto.

    So few general audience SF productions have ever gotten such things right, referring to what they mean as other solar systems as other galaxies. I remember the original Battlestar Galactica series was a king of that error. Star Trek at least knew what the Milky Way galaxy was.

  • A. A. Jackson January 1, 2012, 19:18

    Lyrical FTL:
    Can’t let it go by without mention of poetic interstellar flight.
    First I want to note James Blish. Someone has already mentioned the Spindizzy from Cites in Flight. Let me add Blish was always trumping his own fiction.
    Communication in Cites in Flight was done ordinarily done with the FTL ultra-phone, but if one was really in a hurry Blish had (the more expensive to use) instantaneous ‘Dirac’. Lord who but Blish could have thought of that!

    Let me mention, in between Alfred Bester’s, THE STARS MY DESTINATION…. where teleportation is used for interstellar transport, only use I know of, but that may not be true.

    But there is nothing , but nothing to compare with Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind with it’s various odd technologies.
    Of importance here is the Planoform drive .
    I can’t do any better than the Wiki description so I will quote it:

    “As its name implies, the Planoform drive unit ‘collapses’ spacetime from its conventional 4-dimensional form into 3 dimensions. As time is considered a constant of experience, effectively space ‘loses’ a dimension.
    The Planoform ship has two modes of operation: Go and Stop. The Stop Captain is responsible for turning the power on and off for the ship. The Go Captain navigates through Planoform space by interpreting the stellar patterns captured by sensors during a Planoform space-fold.
    During the Space Fold, the view forward of the ship ‘collapses’ as Third Dimension of Space, Depth, is subtracted. The Go-Captain is thus able to direct the ship by picking (much as user picks a point on a computer screen with a mouse pointer) the course of the ship. In the manner of star charts, he uses what are known as Lock Sheets.
    The Planoform clearly operates by meson-tachyon inversion. Ships that imperfectly Planoform are said to ‘Go Milky’ and disappear from loss of molecular cohesion.”

    When a writer can incorporate such into stories such as:
    “Scanners Live in Vain”
    “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell”
    “Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons”
    “Think Blue, Count Two”
    and it goes on and on…..
    you know you are in the realm of science fiction such as no author has ever written.

  • Sean the Sorcerer January 2, 2012, 0:31

    Well Connie I would say that sending a ship to Alpha Centauri is also, for practical purposes, impossibly far, far away from our present abilities.

    As for how to fold space, we already do it in a crude way every time we read a story or play a video game about space travel. I suspect at some point we’ll realize that since we can simulate the laws of physics arbitrarily in our computers, there will be no meaningful difference between visiting other star systems and simply generating them in the Matrix. That may not technically be “folding space,” but it could amount to the same thing.

  • Marc G Millis January 2, 2012, 8:12

    Wow! Thanks to Bill Christensen for the corrections and for pointing our readers to his extensive references. Thanks to the rest of you for introducing me to many things I had not thought about… and reminding me of ones I forgot to mention… and cringe that I forgot them (eg. Sänger and Blish).

    Looks like I need to make a corrected list!


  • A. A. Jackson January 2, 2012, 12:11

    Yeah I had forgotten the particulars of Day the Earth Stood Still and E.T.

    Not to forget George Lucas’s ignorance in the first Star Wars film:

    “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.”
    ―Han Solo, referring to the Millennium Falcon[src]

    Since that time George and his hordes of apologists have tried paper over this one with some double think, and I don’t know why.
    A goof is a goof.

    Film and TV makers , seem to have , why I don’t know!, an outstanding misunderstanding of interstellar distances and interplanetary.
    I don’t think Roddenberry was a technical guy, but he read so much SF prose the facts has soaked in by osmosis.

    Issac Asimov used to write a column for TV guide about SF on TV.
    Boy did he give em hell.
    I remember his review of the first episode of Lost in Space.
    Someone on the show says something like “Just now passing Pluto approaching Alpha Centauri”
    The good doctor said, “That’s like a bus driver saying , if you look out your left window you will see we are pulling into El Paso Texas, out your right window is Beijing China.”

  • ljk January 2, 2012, 14:10

    Winchell CHung has developed an extensive (and I mean extensive) Web site on various aspects of science fiction and how they relate (or should relate) to real science and technology.

    Check out his section titled Atomic Rockets, as one relevant example:


  • Adam January 2, 2012, 22:44

    Doc Smith’s space drives can’t be beat for ludicrous speed. His Skylark Three upgraded from copper to uranium and accelerated at 20 c/s/s to chase the Fenachrone into the Intergalactic Void. Hammered by disembodied Intelligences the crew escape into hyperspace in the Skylark Two, popping out near Valeron, billions of light-years away. They then build the Skylark of Valeron which is 1000 km wide so they can navigate back to our Galaxy.

  • ljk January 2, 2012, 23:00

    A. A. Jackson said on January 2, 2012 at 12:11:

    “I remember his review of the first episode of Lost in Space.
    Someone on the show says something like “Just now passing Pluto approaching Alpha Centauri”
    The good doctor said, “That’s like a bus driver saying , if you look out your left window you will see we are pulling into El Paso Texas, out your right window is Beijing China.”

    LJK replies:

    Their Jupiter 2 starship took off for a habitable planet circling Alpha Centauri on October 16, 1997, so what’s 25 trillion miles between friends? :^)

  • ljk January 3, 2012, 0:05

    Time Travel and Warp Drives

    A Scientific Guide to Shortcuts through Time and Space

    Allen Everett and Thomas Roman

    280 pages | 33 halftones, 9 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2011

    Sci-fi makes it look so easy. Receive a distress call from Alpha Centauri? No problem: punch the warp drive and you’re there in minutes. Facing a catastrophe that can’t be averted? Just pop back in the timestream and stop it before it starts.

    But for those of us not lucky enough to live in a science-fictional universe, are these ideas merely flights of fancy—or could it really be possible to travel through time or take shortcuts between stars?

    Full article here:


    A review here:


  • Rob Henry January 3, 2012, 0:13

    ljk, when I saw The Day the Earth Stood Still, I thought that they were telling us that they came from an observation post in the asteroid belt by that “250 million mile” phrase. The alternative is that this something dated the setting of the film to a rare time when Martian aphelion occurred when it was furthest from the Earth.

    Also it would have shown ignorance on the part of an ETI of the time to use the word billion, whose meaning at the time was mathematically ambiguous. Unambiguous is milliard and, for those Americans who don’t listen carefully (or perhaps actors that don’t read scripts carefully), can sound like million. However, as you mentioned, 250 milliard miles is in the middle of nowhere. 250 billion miles would have been perfect as an interstellar distance, and had they said that in a film of that era I hope you Americans would have had the nous to realise that it could only have been meant in the British sense.

  • ljk January 3, 2012, 10:40

    Rob Henry said on January 3, 2012 at 0:13:

    “ljk, when I saw The Day the Earth Stood Still, I thought that they were telling us that they came from an observation post in the asteroid belt by that “250 million mile” phrase. The alternative is that this something dated the setting of the film to a rare time when Martian aphelion occurred when it was furthest from the Earth.”

    LJK replies:

    Though I am almost 100% certain that the film makers implied that Klaatu had come from another solar system with the 250 million miles line, he also mentioned that his people had been monitoring them for a long time (that is how Klaatu learned to speak English), so an observation post in the Main Planetoid Belt would not be unreasonable. Several SETI folks have said in the past that this band of space rocks between Mars and Jupiter would be a good place for an alien intelligence (via probe) to monitor Earth virtually unnoticed.

    Rob Henry then said:

    “Also it would have shown ignorance on the part of an ETI of the time to use the word billion, whose meaning at the time was mathematically ambiguous. Unambiguous is milliard and, for those Americans who don’t listen carefully (or perhaps actors that don’t read scripts carefully), can sound like million. However, as you mentioned, 250 milliard miles is in the middle of nowhere. 250 billion miles would have been perfect as an interstellar distance, and had they said that in a film of that era I hope you Americans would have had the nous to realise that it could only have been meant in the British sense.”

    LJK replies:

    Rob, I can pretty much assure you that most Americans do not use the term milliard or even have a clue what that word means. It definitely would not have been used in the 1951 film, either. Just say lots of millions or billions or even trillions of miles (no kilometers, please) and to the masses, that’s pretty darn far out there.

    And parsecs is a unit of speed, of course. :^) Yes, I know the fan “excuse” is that the Kessel Run is a measurement of how far one can get their hotrod starship across interstellar space in a specific amount of time. Well, they are from a galaxy far, far away, so being essentially a bunch of aliens, they might measure their races differently.

    While I am thinking about it, would it be wise for Han Solo to participate in a public race if he has various bounties on him across their galaxy? Ah, he could probably out-hyperdrive any pursuers with ease.

  • Marc G Millis January 3, 2012, 15:31

    I agree that Winchell Chung has an extensive and delightful Web site ! I’ve used it many times for scale model reference info too.


  • Adam January 4, 2012, 6:37

    On the parsecs thing, Doc Smith’s Lensmen flew around at 60 light years an hour, but high speed starships could hit 90 parsecs per hour. Perhaps the Kessel Run is a speed trial?

  • Yusif January 5, 2012, 14:08

    I would add the space folder technology from the Dune series: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heighliner#Heighliner.

  • Rogerio Penna January 9, 2012, 15:33

    The movie Explorers starts very well, and then, when they arrive at the alien spaceship and find those clownish alien children, its down the slope.

  • ljk January 9, 2012, 15:55

    You want the secret of FTL travel? Here are the schematics:


  • Andrew Lang January 9, 2012, 23:26
  • ljk January 10, 2012, 23:57

    The Dreams of Space:


    And the Visions of Tomorrw, Yesterday, and Today: On to the Stars:


  • Andre Cavalcante March 5, 2012, 0:41

    I loved this post, but I noticed the omission of Babylon 5 TV series (1993-1998).

    The Babylon 5 itself is not a space ship, but a O’Neill cylinder based space station. There are specific sectors in the space station adapted to its habitants (races): gravity, atmosphere, pressure, etc. The artificial gravity is achieved by space station rotation.

    The series also presents the most complete notion about hyperspace until then: a alternative dimension in the universe that shorten the travel between planets in different solar systems. The ships themselves do not travel faster than light in the hyperspace and use existing jump points to enter or exit the hyperspace. The big ones are capable of open its own jump point to hyperspace.

    Interesting, too, is the existence of the organic space ships (the most advanced ships in the series), mind controlled by psychics.

    The series also presents the notion of thirdspace, another dimension akin hyperspace, but beyond that. Thirdspace is used by intergalactic and interdimensional travels.

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