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Robert Heinlein
Robert Heinlein envisioned a future in 1945 where the atomic bomb made conventional warfare obsolete and thus required the development of rockets, which could also be used for space exploration. (credit: The Heinlein Prize Trust)

“We must ride the lightning”: Robert Heinlein and American spaceflight

July 7 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Robert Anson Heinlein. In Kansas City the Heinlein Centennial will celebrate his writings and feature talks by the NASA administrator Michael Griffin as well as Heinlein scholars and enthusiasts. Heinlein is the closest thing that the American pro-space movement has to a patron saint.

Science fiction has, for good or ill, had a major effect upon how Americans think about spaceflight. Many early rocket engineers were inspired by Jules Verne, many current space enthusiasts were inspired by Star Trek. Heinlein certainly inspired many in the entrepreneurial space movement.

Heinlein’s unique strength was his willingness to reexamine assumptions. He had what Henry Kuttner called in his introduction to Heinlein’s 1953 book Revolt in 2100 “the innocent eye.” An article in the current edition of Reason magazine addresses Heinlein’s role in the history of libertarian ideology and notes that although Heinlein’s works ranged across many different topics and seemed to explore different philosophies, they generally shared certain main themes, one of the main ones being opposition to centralized authority.

Despite this view, Heinlein also had a pragmatic core. He believed in a strong military and opposition to Soviet communism. In his nonfiction writings and his political activism he frequently advocated both.

With these concepts in mind, it is worth looking at a rather amazing memo that Heinlein wrote in 1945 advocating a rigorous American missile and space program. Heinlein wrote it soon after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. He argued that the bomb had changed the world and he believed that intercontinental rockets would also have a major effect on warfare. He wanted the United States to get out in front of this new development like it had with the bomb.

Heinlein is the closest thing that the American pro-space movement has to a patron saint.

There are many interesting aspects to the memo, but what is unique about it is that it occupies a point precisely in the middle of the overlap between science fiction and current reality. Although Heinlein thought that he was discussing the world as it was—or was about to be—his own interests in rockets and spaceflight were biasing his projections. He was advocating solutions to current problems that were far more fantastical than practical. Heinlein was certainly not alone in this. Many people looked at the atomic bomb and made dire predictions that fortunately proved false. But Heinlein believed in rocketry and spaceflight so fervently that it led him to conclusions that were not well-grounded in the actual technical realities of his day. That is worth considering today, six decades later, when Heinlein is still held in such high esteem as a prophet for the NewSpace movement.

“We are out of business…”

For most of World War 2, Heinlein worked as a civilian engineer on aircraft programs for the Naval Air Experimental Station (NAES) at the Naval Air Material Center, or NAMC, in Philadelphia. As the war was obviously coming to a close he wrote this memo to the head engineer at NAMC and then immediately resigned to return to private life, where he not only went back to fiction writing, but like so many intellectuals of his generation also concerned himself with the politics of the bomb.

The memo is written in classic Heinleinian style—conversational, not bureaucratic, and with a tone of overt cheerleading. It starts:

I believe it is evident to any sober-minded technical man that the events of 6 Aug. 45… should cause us carefully to re-examine all plans, proposals, and projects which obtained before that time.

The preliminaries aside, he then made a bold statement:

In the first place, in the broad sense we are out of business, just as thoroughly out of business as were wooden ships after the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac. On the other hand we need not be out of business if we reorient, see what may be done with our exceptional resources in the way of trained personnel and mechanical equipment, and then determine what we should do in the interest of the United States of America in particular and humanity in general. What task is there for which we are fitted and which would serve the culture we are committed to support?

Heinlein then listed the specific reasons why he believed the world had changed.

Why we are out of business

The atomic bomb is so overwhelmingly different from every previous weapon of war as to change the whole approach. I could expand that indefinitely but I am at loss for words—either a man sees it almost at once or he will never see it. But I will offer meager illustrations:

No more surface warships.
No more infantry.
No more reciprocating engines in military aircraft.
No more tanks.
Every type of craft or weapon abolished or changed beyond recognition because of the incredible changes in logistics and tactics.
Possibility of wars which last fifteen minutes instead of years.
No more aircraft carriers --and all which that implies.
It became quite evident at once that the greatest bomber in aviation history, the B-29, was not really up to the job of carrying the atomic bomb. It is much too slow, can’t fly high enough, and is unnecessarily large. The atomic bomb should be carried by a rocket, manned or unmanned. Then the “parachute” would be unnecessary and the bomb could be placed with precision and with safety of the crew.

Heinlein’s predictions about the future of weapons systems were of course almost completely wrong. Surface warships, infantry, tanks, aircraft carriers and even reciprocating engines in military aircraft did not immediately disappear. Explaining why they did not in the face of the atomic bomb would require many books, but at the most basic level the issue was that the atomic bomb was soon viewed as a weapon so terrible that it would not be regularly used. Even while the United States held a nuclear monopoly, it did not drop bombs on other nations. Because the bomb was essentially unusable, all those other weapons were still necessary to fight the kinds of wars that continued to occur, like Korea.

Heinlein was right about the B-29, but that observation was self-evident. Clearly jets were the way of the future and what the United States needed was a jet bomber, which it got a few years later with the extraordinary B-47. But Heinlein’s memo illuminates his biases. Rather than jet bombers, Heinlein wanted ballistic missiles.

Heinlein’s predictions about the future of weapons systems were of course almost completely wrong.

However, what Heinlein did not understand—undoubtedly because he did not have access to any data about atomic weapons—was that atomic bombs were heavy. In a sense the B-29 was not “unnecessarily large” because it was the only plane then capable of carrying such a large weapon. Lofting a weapon of that size atop a rocket would be very difficult, something that Heinlein could not fully comprehend because he did not have the data.

“We must ride the lightning and ride it well.”

In the post-war period, Robert Heinlein devoted much time and effort to prophesizing about how much the world had changed because of the bomb. His outlook was grim: he thought that atomic conflict was virtually inevitable. He was not alone in this; many intellectuals felt the same way and even formed alliances such as the Federation of American Scientists to try to influence policy. But in his 1945 memo, Heinlein is not so much advocating disarmament as sober recognition of the new realities, as well as the need to embrace high-tech warfare.

What should we do?

This question needs to be approached with humility and with real desire to serve rather than simply with the idea of preserving a particular bureaucratic institution as a going concern. It may be conclusively assumed that, while war may possibly be successfully outlawed through the use or the threat of the use of the atomic bomb, the atomic bomb itself may no more be outlawed than sex or the silent stars. It’s here, we’ve got it. It is a fait accompli. We must at all times be ready and willing to use it. If our culture is to survive we must contain that power with sober judgment and humanity. It is a simple fact that (1) we can not afford a war ever again, (2) the atomic bomb cannot be abolished, nor can it be indefinitely kept from other peoples. We must ride the lightning and ride it well. I conceive the atomic bomb as being the force behind the police power for a planetary peace. Perhaps the custodian will be called the “Armed Forces of the U.S.” or perhaps the “Peace Forces of the United Nations,”—or perhaps another title. No matter, such a force there must be if we are not to be ourselves destroyed.

The idea of an international peacekeeping force was certainly in vogue around that time. It had predated the war with Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, but the immense destruction of World War 2 lent it increased vigor, and the atomic bomb would soon add momentum to the movement. Some groups even proposed that the United States give up its atomic monopoly to an international force.

Heinlein then turned his attention to arming such a new entity and argued that the organization that he had worked for during the war, the Naval Air Materiel Command, could lead the way:

I propose that NAMC undertake to develop a suitable passenger carrying rocket to be the “squad car” for the “planetary police.” (No doubt the AAF [Army Air Forces] will tackle it also. Fine!)

Nuclear physics is not our field. Craft which rise above the earth is our field. A new type is needed. Let’s build it.

Perhaps realizing that his idea might be considered far-fetched, Heinlein pointed to numerous wartime examples of rockets, including the Japanese Oka rocket-powered suicide bomb, the V-2 rocket, and recent developments in increasing rocket exhaust velocities. He also explained that rockets were largely indifferent to weather because they cruised beyond the atmosphere. Pressurization of the vehicle for a crew should not be a problem and other technical developments made a man-carrying rocket feasible.

I propose a major project at NAF with numerous supporting projects at NAES to build such a rocket. A team should be set up consisting of a project engineer, several expert consultants (hired outside) engineers of many ratings including mechanical, ballistical, weight, electronic, and aero. The team should be large.

Heinlein then described in broad terms the steps needed to undertake this effort. Eventually it would transform the NAMC. “We would end up with a new and different organization… but we would end up with a rocket.”

But Heinlein was not naïve.

It is possible that the open development of a military rocket will meet strong emotional opposition in the next few years. It might be more feasible in peace time to carry on this job, a job of pure research, by selecting an objective non-military in character but which would with utter certainty provide the military results as well. For example we might propose to build a messenger rocket to the moon.

This early effort would be a stunt with practical benefits. It would:

…leave a mark (explosive dispersed carbon black, or similar dodge) on the face of the moon—a useless thing in itself but parallel to the 1st flight at Kitty Hawk, a conclusive demonstration that man can conquer space. The unique prestige which would accrue to the United States of America, to the U.S. Navy, and to NAMC in particular cannot be expressed. As an unpublicized side issue we would know how to build the perfect carrier for the A-bomb.

Heinlein proposed two types of rockets for discussion. One would be a two-person “A-bomb rocket” that might have relatively short range and have to be air-launched due to insufficiently powerful fuels.

The other was a

…Messenger Moon Rocket -- A two-stage job with a 50 lb. payload. It might be subjected to radio correction for the 1st 1000 miles and thereafter controlled by a radar target seeker and a robot, set for the moon, and acting through cams out to this particular “problem of two bodies,” but that would increase the original weight several fold and may not be necessary. I suggest that it be done even though unnecessary as it would automatically carry out several military projects necessary to the A-bomb carrier.

Heinlein also claimed that “It must be noted that it is really much easier to build a successful Moon rocket than to build a proper war rocket. Nevertheless either problem can be used to solve the other—the choice between the two is a choice in diplomacy and politics, not in engineering.”

Heinlein then ended with a flourish.

I could go on indefinitely. This is as good a place to stop as any. To you and my other colleagues, goodbye. I leave with very mixed emotions. If you get this project, I may be back, hat in hand, asking for a job!

Prophecies and realities

The US Navy did start studying rocket and space programs in the late 1940s. According to a paper from the 1980s by noted military space historian R. Cargill Hall, these efforts originated outside of the NAMC. They had nothing to do with Heinlein’s memo. But eventually the studies died out, whereas the Air Force continued conducting more extensive studies of spaceflight and eventually started a satellite program.

Heinlein was certainly a prophet, but sometimes prophets are ignored and sometimes they are wrong.

The Navy also did not engage in significant ballistic missile development in the immediate post-war years. The Air Force led in that field as well—but slowly. To some extent Heinlein was right about emotional opposition to ballistic missiles. But in the case of the Air Force leadership was imprisoned by its own biases. For approximately a decade after the war, the Air Force sought to develop cruise missiles, believing that they were easier to perfect than ballistic missiles. They were not easy to develop; their guidance systems proved very challenging. But they had wings and Air Force pilots understood wings. Ballistic missiles received far less attention and money during this period.

But it is also true that the heavy weight of atomic weapons during this period would have required a very large rocket to carry them. The development of thermonuclear weapons changed the paradigm and made intercontinental rockets conceivable. The Air Force then poured money into the Atlas ICBM program and the shorter range Thor and by the end of the 1950s the United States had its first long-range ballistic missiles.

Heinlein was certainly a prophet, but sometimes prophets are ignored and sometimes they are wrong. As we focus more attention on his life, it will be a challenge to place him in the proper context of the American space program.

Heinlein’s original memo can be found here.

Acknowledgement: The author wishes to thank TK, Bill Patterson, and Robert Kennedy. He also wishes to thank Eleanor Wood of Spectrum Literary Agency and Arthur M. Dula of the Robert A. & Virginia Heinlein Prize Trust for their kind permission to use the memo discussed in this article.