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Heinlein Society - Scholastic/Academic articles

Robert A. Heinlein and Atomic Weapons


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"A Flight of Speculation"

1998

by Edward M. Wysocki, Jr.

After World War II, Heinlein tells us, he resumed writing with two objectives: "first to explain the meaning of atomic weapons through popular articles… I wrote nine articles intending to shed light on the post Hiroshima age, and I never worked harder on any writing, researched the background more thoroughly, tried harder to make the (grim and horrid) message entertaining and reasonable…I continued to write those articles until the U.S.S.R. rejected the United States' proposals for controlling and outlawing atomic weapons… and I stopped trying to pedal articles based on tying down the Bomb… --Was I really so naif that I though I could change the course of history this way? No, not really. But damn it, I had to try!" Heinlein referred to these articles as his "failing at World Saving." Recently, Ed Wysocki wrote, for the The Heinlein Journal, an article about one of these attempts, entitled "Flight Into the Future." By special arrangement with the author and the Journal, this paper is republished here. This is especially significant because it is the only one of Heinlein's cautionary articles written after World War II that he was able to get published.

During the course of performing other research on Robert Heinlein's early writing, I was trying to locate everything he had written, no matter how obscure, in the hope that it would provide some useful information. This other research concerned the identity of a purely fictional device which Heinlein was supposed to have described in one of his early stories and which was then actually developed for Navy use by one of his Academy classmates (see my Note in Issue No. 2 of the Journal). As the evidence appears to indicate that the classmate was his close friend Caleb Laning, the existence of an article by Heinlein and Laning was too obvious to pass up.

I am referring to "Flight into the Future," a non-fiction work which appeared in the August 30, 1947, issue of Colliers magazine, and which has not been reprinted in any collection of Heinlein's works. A quick reading of the article showed that it unfortunately contained nothing of use in my research into the identity of the device.

Although "Flight into the Future" could contribute nothing to my original research task, many of its features were sufficiently interesting to keep me from simply tossing it aside. My first step was to see how the article was discussed in Panshin's Heinlein in Dimension. Although it is properly listed in the table of non-fiction works, it is not mentioned at all in the accompanying chapter or elsewhere in the book. His statement is that some of the listed non-fiction works: "… have a certain pertinence to his science fiction, and hence deserve some discussion, if only briefly." (Panshin 178)

This makes the absence of any discussion of "Flight into the Future" a bit puzzling, as it has a direct connection with several of his fictional works. Furthermore, I was not able to locate any other book or article in which the content of this article and its relation to Heinlein's other works are discussed.

The most obvious place to start is to note that just as "Beyond Doubt" is Heinlein's only fictional collaboration (with Elma Wentz) to be published, "Flight into the Future" is apparently his only published non-fiction collaboration.

Let us then consider how the authors are listed, "Captain Caleb Laning, U.S. Navy and Lieutenant Robert A. Heinlein, U.S. Navy, Retired." Laning was on active duty at the time, in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, having been elected Chairman of the Joint Army-Navy Radar Committee in February, 1947. He retired in May, 1959, advancing on retirement to the rank of Rear Admiral on the basis of his combat awards (Laning Naval Bio). But Heinlein had been retired for medical reasons in 1934. He was clearly entitled to refer to himself in the manner described. I am not aware, however, of any other publication for which he identified himself as author by his prior naval rank and his retired status.

This particular means of listing the authors could be a function of how well Heinlein felt he was known outside the bounds of science fiction in 1947. All of his publications up through 1942 had been in the science fiction magazines, the "pulps." His post-war short stories had just started appearing in the Saturday Evening Post in 1947, the same year in which "Flight into the Future" appeared. Would the arguments and speculation be better received by most readers if presented by two naval officers (one current and one former) than if presented by a naval officer and a science fiction writer most of the general public had probably not heard of at the time?

Taken as a whole, the article is concerned with the prospect of future atomic wars and the steps that may be taken to prevent such wars. But the article may be clearly divided into sections with somewhat different focus.

Orbiting A-Bombs

When I began to read the article, I was immediately struck by its similarity to another Heinlein work. The first work by Heinlein which I read, in fact the first work of science fiction I ever read, was Space Cadet. This work has long been recognized as an extrapolation of Heinlein's Naval Academy days. Although many aspects of the story have been overtaken by history and the knowledge of actual planetary conditions, it is still a good read.

One key chapter of Space Cadet is Chapter X, "Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes," which mainly consists of Matt Dodson recalling his just completed home leave. These recollections include him attempting to explain to his parents the servicing of orbiting atom bomb rockets, a task with which he was occupied prior to his leave. This topic of discussion results in his mother becoming extremely upset and in a confrontation with his father on the possibility of the patrol ever attacking the North American Union. The chapter concludes with his attempting to resolve his confusion and doubts with Lieutenant Wong, his advisor aboard the orbiting school, the P.R.S. Randolph.

The description of the servicing of the rocket bombs, beginning with the departure from a base on the moon, forms the first 50 percent of "Flight into the Future." Some material is included to explain the nature of the moonbase, the makeup of the crew, and a few elementary details of spaceflight. This extra material is necessary, as the article is clearly intended for those not familiar with concepts well known to readers of science fiction. But particular segments of the article have exactly corresponding segments in the novel. The degree of similarity can be demonstrated just by comparing two sets of quotes. First, consider a description of the type of orbit employed:

Let's consider a rocket with a two-hour period and arrange for it to circle north and south from pole to pole, instead of around the equator ("Flight" 19).

and

The rocket bombs go round and round, like this, from pole-to-pole, every two hours (Space Cadet 119).

Following the approach of the patrol ship and a space-suited crew member going out to retrieve the rocket bomb, we then have a description of the process of "safing" it prior to bringing it aboard the patrol craft for inspection and servicing:

The man inserts the crowbar gadget in the war head of the rocket and locks it into place. There is now a mechanical obstacle stopping the sequence of events necessary to trigger the atom bomb ("Flight" 36).

Now compare:

Besides that, I had inserted the trigger guard - that's nothing more or less than a little crowbar, but when it's in place not even a miracle could set it off, because you can't bring the sub-critical masses together (Space Cadet 121).

These and other details leave little doubt as to the source of some of the material for Space Cadet, which was apparently written in late 1947, at least according to information contained in Grumbles From The Grave (44). One may conclude that this idea of the rocket bombs and the patrolling space ship under the control of the Security Council of the U.N. and rocket bombs was then expanded to form the Patrol and the Federation which then provided the framework for the plot of Space Cadet.

Defense Against Attack

The next section of the article considers the launching of atomic bombs from orbit from the perspective of those on the ground and how they might defend against such an attack.

This point is raised in the novel, during a discussion between Dodson and his advisor:

Men on the surface of the planet are as helpless against men in spaceships as a man would be trying to conduct a rock-throwing fight from the bottom of a well. The man at the top of the well has gravity working for him (Space Cadet 110)

This has a corresponding piece in the article:

… but consider an analogy: Two men, one at the bottom of a 200-foot well, one at the top, each equipped with large, jagged rocks. Who bashes in whose head? ("Flight" 36)

By considering orbiting bombs or an orbiting ship capable of launching bombs from orbit, a different type of defense problem was presented than was the case of the ICBMs with which we all became familiar, fortunately not in a direct manner, during the era of the Cold War. Heinlein and Laning were posing an even more difficult problem than that faced by the proponents of the Strategic Defense Initiative. In attempting to counter an attack by ICBMs launched from bases in Russian or Chinese territories, the developers of a defense were able to consider the possibility of employing a layered approach. If the missiles could be detected at launch by orbiting satellites, they would be vulnerable to several different countermeasures during their flight. Space-based lasers were proposed to destroy missiles during the boost phase. Other lasers or anti-missiles would then attempt to destroy the survivors of the first layer during their ballistic trajectory. Finally, the few (we would hope very few) survivors would encounter ground-launched interceptor missiles as they re-entered the atmosphere (Jastrow 243).

Heinlein and Laning's rocket bombs were already in orbit, either on their own or as the payload of an attacking ship. All that remained of our attacking ICBM's trajectory in the case of the rocket bombs is the terminal phase, with all of the difficulties of a shortened reaction time. This is recognized by Heinlein and Laning when they state that in the absence of a Space Patrol, the only alternative would be ground-based interceptors. But they correctly point out that the attacker has the advantage.

The problems and consequences of defense (or lack thereof) against a nuclear attack have formed the basis of other works of Heinlein: "Solution Unsatisfactory," "The Last Days of the United States," "How to be a Survivor," "Pie From The Sky," "On the Slopes of Vesuvius," "The Long Watch," Rocket Ship Galileo, and Farnham's Freehold. And we must not forget the line from the movie Destination Moon:

There is absolutely no way to stop an attack from outer space. That, gentlemen, is the most important military fact of this century.

The conclusion presented in the article is that we must make the U.N. work and then develop a Space Corps which will form the basis of the U.N. Security Forces. This concept of an international patrol has its roots in the political and technical situation which was presented in "Solution Unsatisfactory." The argument is made that should our attempts to make the U.N. work not succeed, we must enforce a Pax Americana, the exact term employed in this earlier work (111).

Development of Rockets

To make the Space Patrol work, one obvious criterion is that we must have patrol spaceships. (I will leave the discussion of the possibility of the second criterion, that the Space Patrol could have ever developed from the U.N. given the existence of the proper technology, to someone else.) Although the orbiting bombs are themselves rockets, their size makes it reasonable to assume that they are placed in orbit by the patrol ships. Consequently, the final portions of the article consider the probable course of the development of long range rockets, leading to the patrol spaceships.

The discussion began by quoting Professor J.R. Dunning that the first-large scale application of atomic power for transport is large seagoing ships. An excellent prediction as long as we restrict ourselves to warships such as aircraft carriers and submarines. The atomic-powered airplane is dismissed because of the weight of shielding required. The discussion then proceeds to the atomic powered spaceship in the manner of Rocket Ship Galileo and Destination Moon.

We can forget about atomic rockets. The only work done in that area, at least by the United States, was Project NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) (Ley 501). The principle is as explained in Rocket Ship Galileo and Destination Moon, that a nuclear reactor is used to heat a reaction mass which is then expelled. The difference between fact and fiction is that Heinlein used metal (zinc) as the reaction mass in Rocket Ship Galileo and water in Destination Moon, where Project NERVA used liquid hydrogen. Atomic power was considered likely to provide more powerful rockets than would be possible by chemical means. This was balanced by the obvious radiation hazard and the need to carry sufficient shielding. Given our concerns about the environment and the restrictions placed on nuclear testing (not to forget the uproar over the recent launch of the Cassini probe with nuclear material on board), I would think that it is safe to assume that we are not likely to see atomic-powered rockets at any point in the foreseeable future.

The development of rockets leading to the patrol spaceships is then proposed as a consortium of various government agencies, the military, universities and industry. This is a theme which we can find in another work, Destination Moon:

The problem right now is one of research, design, special materials, the pooling of resources, specialized skills, engineering brains, industrial capacity. No single company could possibly do it....

There is one Heinlein story, "The Man Who Sold the Moon," which took the opposite view of the situation, in which a single company accomplished the trip to the moon.

A very brief description is given of the then-current program under way at White Sands, involving the launch of V-2 rockets shipped from Germany and converted to research purposes. The article states that we would run out of V-2 rockets in 1948. The last V-2 actually flew in 1951, a total of 52 firings (Ley 606 - 607). As Heinlein and Laning state that a hundred V-2s were shipped to White Sands, they appear to have assumed that these rockets were going to be shot off at a very high rate.

Progress in the Conquest of Space

The final section of the article then considers what will come immediately after the V-2 in the hoped for progression to the patrol Spaceship. The immediate successor to the V-2 is identified as the Neptune, which was the name assigned during its early development. When the rocket finally flew, it was as the Viking (Ley 307).

There is some discrepancy between the characteristics of the Viking in the article and the performance of the actual flights in later years. The speed was stated as better than a mile and a half (7920 feet) per second, but Viking XI, which flew on May 24, 1954, had the highest velocity, only 6300 feet per second. Similarly, it was stated that the Viking could carry an instrument package twice as high as the V-2. If we again look at Viking XI, it holds the record at 158 miles, as compared with the highest V-2 flight of 116 miles on December 17, 1946 (Ley 609). If we consider that the Viking was first announced in June 1947, shortly before "Flight into the Future" appeared, and that this announcement most likely contained preliminary performance estimates, we can't really fault Heinlein and Laning.

The concluding sentence of the article explains where Heinlein and Laning expected the work to lead:

From the 300-mile missile, we progress to the ocean-spanning missile, then to the permanent-orbit round-the-world missile at which point these lines of development also converge on the space ship.

Why did we wind up with ICBMs instead of orbiting bombs? It is a question of technology as well as public perception. The failure to develop atomic power for space ships has already been discussed. In addition, orbiting bombs would require a permanent presence in space. The U.S. space program did not develop such a presence. We could say that the Russian space program did develop a permanent presence, depending how one considers MIR. For the moment, let us assume that we and the Russians had independently developed a permanent presence in space, in the face of the failure of an international organization to develop as suggested in the article. We would then have had two superpowers with the orbiting bombs and ships capable of launching an attack. Whether this situation would have been more unstable than what we actually faced, I will again leave to others to debate. One could argue that the presence of orbiting A-bombs is very similar to the presence of missiles in submarines which are difficult to track and destroy—so far as both are compared with missiles in silos.

But, all technical and geo-political considerations aside, we can only wonder if most people would have reacted to the orbiting bombs in exactly the same manner as Matt Dodson' s mother:

…I don't like this. I don't like it, do you hear me? What if it should fall? (Space Cadet, 119)

The final paragraph of the article refers to the development of missiles by the various services at Wendover, Nevada, or at Point Mugu, California, or at Wright Field, or at the Naval Air Materials Center in Philadelphia. We can recognize the last of these as the location of Robert Heinlein's service during World War 2. But at least one other of the locations has a direct Heinlein connection. To quote from the naval biography of Buddy Scoles, a Heinlein friend and shipmate:

…he served nine months as Commanding Officer of the U.S. Naval Pilotless Aircraft Unit, transferring in September, 1946 to the U.S. Naval Missile Test Center, Point Mugu, California.

Conclusion

"Flight Into the Future" clearly shows the background for the novel Space Cadet, including direct analogs to sequences in the novel. The article provides ties to many of Heinlein's other writings, starting with "Solution Unsatisfactory" and continuing on to Destination Moon and other works. It also provides a well-reasoned assessment of the possible way in which atomic war could have occurred and suggested at least one way it could have been avoided. These are all quite interesting features of an article which has been neglected for so long. One is led to wonder why this article was never included in any other collection of Heinlein's works.


Works Cited:

Destination Moon. Dir. Irving Pichel. Screenplay by Rip Van Ronkel, Robert A. Heinlein and James O'Hanlon. Eagle Lion, 1950.

Heinlein, Robert A. Farnham's Freehold. NewYork: Signet, 1965.

-------------------------. Grumbles From The Grave. Ed. Virginia Heinlein. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 1989.

-------------------------. "How to Be a Survivor." Expanded Universe: The New Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. New York: Grosset And Dunlap, 1980.

-------------------------. "The Last Days of the United States." Expanded Universe: The New Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. New York: Grosset And Dunlap, 1980.

-------------------------. "The Long Watch." The Green Hills of Earth. New York: Signet, 1963.

-------------------------. " The Man Who Sold the Moon." The Man Who Sold The Moon. New York: Signet, 1963.

-------------------------. "On the Slopes of Vesuvius." Expanded Universe: The New Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. New York: Grosset And Dunlap, 1980.

--------------------------. "Pie From the Sky." Expanded Universe: The New Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. New York: Grosset And Dunlap, 1980.

--------------------------. Rocket Ship Galileo. NewYork: Scribner's, 1947.

--------------------------. Space Cadet. New York: Scribner's, 1948.

--------------------------. "Solution Unsatisfactory." Expanded Universe: The New Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. New York: Grosset And Dunlap, 1980.

Jastrow, Robert. "Reagan vs The Scientists." Day of the Tyrant. Ed. Jerry Pournelle and John F. Carr. New York, TOR, 1985. 221-246.

Laning, Caleb B. and Robert A. Heinlein. "Flight Into the Future" Collier's 30 Aug. 1947: 18+.

Ley, Willy. Rockets, Missiles, And Men In Space. NewYork: Signet, 1969.

Panshin, Alexei. Heinlein In Dimension. Chicago: Advent, 1972.

United States. Department of Defense. Naval Biography of Captain. C.B. Laning, USN. Washington: Navy Biographies Section, OI-140, 1955 (updated 1959).

United States. Department of Defense. Naval Biography of Rear Admiral A. B. Scoles, USN Retired. Washington: Division of Naval Records and History, Op-29, 1952.


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The Heinlein Society was founded by Virginia Heinlein on behalf of her husband, science fiction author Robert Anson Heinlein, to "pay forward" the legacy of Robert A. Heinlein to future generations of "Heinlein's Children."