Torchship

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Torchship (or torch ship) is a term used by Robert A. Heinlein in several of his science fiction novels and short stories to describe fictional rocket ships that can maintain high accelerations indefinitely, thus approaching the speed of light. The term has subsequently been used by other authors to describe similar kinds of fictional spaceships.

Robert A. Heinlein American science fiction author

Robert Anson Heinlein was an American science-fiction author, aeronautical engineer, and retired Naval officer. Often called the "dean of science fiction writers", He was among the first to emphasize scientific accuracy in his fiction, and was thus a pioneer of the subgenre of hard science fiction. His work continues to have an influence on the science-fiction genre, and on modern culture more generally.

Science fiction genre of fiction

Science fiction is a genre of speculative fiction, typically dealing with imaginative concepts such as advanced science and technology, space exploration, time travel, and extraterrestrial life. Science fiction often explores the potential consequences of scientific and other innovations, and has been called a "literature of ideas".

Speed of light speed at which all massless particles and associated fields travel in vacuum

The speed of light in vacuum, commonly denoted c, is a universal physical constant important in many areas of physics. Its exact value is 299,792,458 metres per second. It is exact because by international agreement a metre is defined as the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299792458 second. According to special relativity, c is the maximum speed at which all conventional matter and hence all known forms of information in the universe can travel. Though this speed is most commonly associated with light, it is in fact the speed at which all massless particles and changes of the associated fields travel in vacuum. Such particles and waves travel at c regardless of the motion of the source or the inertial reference frame of the observer. In the special and general theories of relativity, c interrelates space and time, and also appears in the famous equation of mass–energy equivalence E = mc2.

Heinlein's use of the term

Cover art for Heinlein's Time for the Stars showing artist Clifford N. Geary's conception of a torchship. Tfts56.jpg
Cover art for Heinlein's Time for the Stars showing artist Clifford N. Geary's conception of a torchship.

In his 1950 novel Farmer in the Sky , Heinlein describes a "mass-conversion ship" that derives its motive power from the complete conversion of mass to energy. The narrator of the novel, who is traveling to Jupiter in a mass-conversion ship called the Mayflower, describes it as follows:

<i>Farmer in the Sky</i> 1950 novel by Robert A. Heinlein

Farmer In The Sky is a 1950 science fiction novel by American writer Robert A. Heinlein about a teenaged boy who emigrates with his family to Jupiter's moon Ganymede, which is in the process of being terraformed. Among Heinlein's juveniles, a condensed version of the novel was published in serial form in Boys' Life magazine, under the title "Satellite Scout". The novel was awarded a Retro Hugo in 2001.

The Mayflower was shaped like a ball with a cone on one side  top-shaped. The point of the cone was her jet  although Chief Engineer Ortega, who showed us around, called it her "torch."

Later in the novel, Ortega is quoted as saying:

"The latest development is the mass-conversion ship, such as the Mayflower, and it may be the final development  a mass-conversion ship is theoretically capable of approaching the speed of light."

The scientific advance that permits this efficient conversion of mass to energy is called the "Kilgore equations."

In later novels and stories, including "Sky Lift" (1953), Time for the Stars (1956), and Double Star (1957), Heinlein refers to mass-conversion ships as "torchships" and to their pilots as "torchship pilots." Exposition in Tunnel in the Sky (1955), states "Ortega's torch ships could reach the stars," but explains the need for Gates to move surplus population off-planet, as it would be impossible to build/crew enough ships to carry a significant fraction of the human race. In Have Space Suit - Will Travel (1958), the protagonists are kidnapped by hostile aliens and taken to Pluto aboard a space ship that accelerates at more than one gravity for days at a time, although the ship is never explicitly referred to as a "torchship."

Sky Lift short story by Robert A. Heinlein

Sky Lift is a science fiction short story by Robert A. Heinlein, first published 1953, and collected in Heinlein's The Menace from Earth.

<i>Time for the Stars</i> novel by Robert A. Heinlein

Time for the Stars is a juvenile science fiction novel by American writer Robert A. Heinlein, published by Scribner's in 1956 as one of the Heinlein juveniles. The basic plot line is derived from a 1911 thought experiment in special relativity, commonly called the twin paradox, proposed by French physicist Paul Langevin.

<i>Double Star</i> novel by Robert A. Heinlein

Double Star is a science fiction novel by American writer Robert A. Heinlein, first serialized in Astounding Science Fiction and published in hardcover the same year. It received the 1956 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

The "torch" is said to work with any matter as fuel; in Time for the Stars, the ship refuels by landing in water, or in one case liquid ammonia.

Ammonia Chemical compound of nitrogen ad hydrogen

Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen with the formula NH3. The simplest pnictogen hydride, ammonia is a colourless gas with a characteristic pungent smell. It is a common nitrogenous waste, particularly among aquatic organisms, and it contributes significantly to the nutritional needs of terrestrial organisms by serving as a precursor to food and fertilizers. Ammonia, either directly or indirectly, is also a building block for the synthesis of many pharmaceutical products and is used in many commercial cleaning products. It is mainly collected by downward displacement of both air and water. Ammonia is named for the Ammonians, worshipers of the Egyptian god Amun, who used ammonium chloride in their rituals.

Use of the term by other authors

The term "torchship" was adopted by a number of other science fiction authors, including

Norman Spinrad American science fiction writer and critic

Norman Richard Spinrad is an American science fiction author, essayist, and critic. His fiction has won the Prix Apollo and been nominated for numerous awards, including the Hugo Award and multiple Nebula Awards.

Dan Simmons is an American science fiction and horror writer. He is the author of the Hyperion Cantos and the Ilium/Olympos cycles, among other works which span the science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres, sometimes within a single novel. A typical example of Simmons' intermingling of genres is Song of Kali (1985), winner of the World Fantasy Award. He also writes mysteries and thrillers, some of which feature the continuing character Joe Kurtz.

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