Last updated

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.

Hyperion Cantos science fiction book series by Dan Simmons

The Hyperion Cantos is a series of science fiction novels by Dan Simmons. The title was originally used for the collection of the first pair of books in the series, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, and later came to refer to the overall storyline, including Endymion, The Rise of Endymion, and a number of short stories. More narrowly, inside the fictional storyline, after the first volume, the Hyperion Cantos is an epic poem written by the character Martin Silenus covering in verse form the events of the first book.

Related Research Articles

Interstellar travel term used for hypothetical manned or unmanned travel between stars

Interstellar travel is the term used for crewed or uncrewed travel between stars or planetary systems. Interstellar travel will be much more difficult than interplanetary spaceflight; the distances between the planets in the Solar System are less than 30 astronomical units (AU)—whereas the distances between stars are typically hundreds of thousands of AU, and usually expressed in light-years. Because of the vastness of those distances, interstellar travel would require a high percentage of the speed of light; huge travel time, lasting from decades to millennia or longer; or a combination of both.

<i>Methuselahs Children</i> book by Robert Heinlein

Methuselah's Children is a science fiction novel by American writer Robert A. Heinlein, originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in the July, August, and September 1941 issues. It was expanded into a full-length novel in 1958.

Lazarus Long is a fictional character featured in a number of science fiction novels by Robert A. Heinlein. Born in 1912 in the third generation of a selective breeding experiment run by the Ira Howard Foundation, Lazarus becomes unusually long-lived, living well over two thousand years with the aid of occasional rejuvenation treatments. Heinlein "patterned" Long on science fiction writer Edward E. Smith, mixed with Jack Williamson's fictional Giles Habibula.

<i>Orphans of the Sky</i> novel by Robert A. Heinlein

Orphans of the Sky is a science fiction novel by American writer Robert A. Heinlein, consisting of two parts: "Universe" and its sequel, "Common Sense". The two novellas were first published together in book form in 1963. "Universe" was also published separately in 1951 as a 10¢ Dell paperback. These works contain one of the earliest fictional depictions of a generation ship.

An interstellar ark or generation ship is a conceptual space vehicle designed for interstellar travel. Interstellar arks may be the most economically feasible method of traveling such distances. The ark has also been proposed as a potential habitat to preserve civilization and knowledge in the event of a global catastrophe.

<i>Future History</i> (Heinlein) series of stories by by Robert A. Heinlein

The Future History, by Robert A. Heinlein, describes a projected future of the human race from the middle of the 20th century through the early 23rd century. The term Future History was coined by John W. Campbell, Jr. in the February 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Campbell published an early draft of Heinlein's chart of the series in the March 1941 issue.

Hyperdrive is a name given to certain methods of traveling faster-than-light (FTL) in science fiction. Related concepts are jump drive and warp drive.

Intergalactic travel spaceflight between galaxies

Intergalactic travel is the term used for hypothetical manned or unmanned travel between galaxies. Due to the enormous distances between our own galaxy the Milky Way and even its closest neighborshundreds of thousands to millions of light-yearsany such venture would be far more technologically demanding than even interstellar travel. Intergalactic distances are roughly a hundred-thousandfold greater than their interstellar counterparts.

A jump drive is a speculative method of traveling faster than light (FTL) in science fiction. Related superluminal concepts are hyperdrive, warp drive and interstellar teleporter. The key characteristic of a jump drive is that it allows a starship to be instantaneously teleported between two points. A jump drive is supposed to make a spaceship go from one point in space to another point, which may be several light years away, in a single instant. Like time travel, a jump drive is often taken for granted in science fiction, but very few science fiction works talk about the mechanics behind a jump drive. There are vague indications of the involvement of tachyons and the space-time continuum in some works.

Hyperspace is a superluminal method of traveling used in science fiction. It is typically described as an alternative "sub-region" of space co-existing with our own universe which may be entered using an energy field or other device. As seen in most fiction hyperspace is most succinctly described as a "somewhere else" within which the laws of general and special relativity decidedly do not apply – especially with respect to the speed of light being the cosmic speed limit. Entering and exiting said "elsewhere" thus directly enables travel near or faster than the speed of light – almost universally with the aid of extremely advanced technology. "Through hyper-space, that unimagineable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something nor nothing, one could traverse the length of the Galaxy in the interval between two neighboring instants of time."

<i>Variable Star</i> book by Robert Heinlein

Variable Star is a 2006 science fiction novel by American author Spider Robinson, based on the surviving seven pages of an eight-page 1955 novel outline by the late Robert A. Heinlein. The book is set in a divergent offshoot of Heinlein's Future History and contains many references to works by Heinlein and other authors. It describes the coming of age of a young musician who signs on to the crew of a starship as a way of escaping from a failed romance. Robinson posted a note on his website in 2009 noting that his agent had sold a trilogy of sequels based on the novel and its characters.

The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein (1907–1988) was productive during a writing career that spanned the last 49 years of his life; the Robert A. Heinlein bibliography includes 32 novels, 59 short stories and 16 collections published during his life. Four films, two TV series, several episodes of a radio series, and a board game derive more or less directly from his work. He wrote a screenplay for one of the films. Heinlein edited an anthology of other writers' SF short stories.

"The Return of William Proxmire" is a short story by Larry Niven first published in 1989 in the anthology What Might Have Been? Volume 1: Alternate Empires, edited by Gregory Benford.

Heinlein juveniles are the young adult novels written by Robert A. Heinlein. The twelve novels were published by Scribner's between 1947 and 1958, which together tell a single story of space exploration. A thirteenth, Starship Troopers, was submitted to Scribner's but rejected and instead published by Putnam. A fourteenth novel, Podkayne of Mars, is often listed as a "Heinlein juvenile", although Heinlein himself did not consider it to be one.

The concepts of space stations and habitats are common in modern culture. While space stations have become reality, there are as yet no true space habitats. Writers, filmmakers, and other artists have produced vivid renditions of the idea of a space station or habitat, and these iterations can be categorized by some of the basic scientific concepts from which they are derived.

<i>To the Stars</i> (novel) book by L. Ron Hubbard

To the Stars is a science fiction novel by American writer L. Ron Hubbard. The novel's story is set in a dystopian future, and chronicles the experiences of protagonist Alan Corday aboard a starship called the Hound of Heaven as he copes with the travails of time dilation from traveling at near light speed. Corday is kidnapped by the ship's captain and forced to become a member of their crew, and when he next returns to Earth his fiancee has aged and barely remembers him. He becomes accustomed to life aboard the ship, and when the captain dies Corday assumes command.