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NSS Member Announcement:

The National Space Society Pays Tribute to Dr. Jerry Pournelle

On Sept 8, 2017, Dr. Jerry Pournelle, one of the giants of the science fiction and space fields, died at home of a sudden illness at the age of 84. Dr. Pournelle was active with the L5 Society in the early years before it merged with the National Space Institute to become NSS. Jerry also served as co-chair of the very first International Space Development Conference, NSS secretary, and as an NSS Board member. We have now lost one of the major pro-space voices. We extend our condolences to his family and close friends.

In the fall of 2015, National Space Society members voted to give Dr. Pournelle the prestigious Robert A. Heinlein Memorial Award for 2016. This award recognized his many years of support for space science, exploration, development and settlement and his close association with Robert Heinlein. The Heinlein award is presented once every two years for lifetime achievement in promoting the goal of a free, spacefaring civilization. The winner is decided by the vote of the entire NSS membership. The award consists of a miniature signal cannon, on a mahogany base with a black granite inlay and a brass plaque as shown. The award concept came from Robert Heinlein's classic book The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Some of the early award winners include Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan, Neil Armstrong and Elon Musk. More information about this award and the past winners is at:

Dave Dressler tells his story of delivering the Heinlein Award to Dr. Jerry Pournelle 

At the International Space Development Conference 2016 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I promised to deliver the coveted Heinlein Award directly to Jerry Pournelle. Mission accomplished! I met with Jerry, son Alex, Larry Niven and Larry's wife Marilyn on September 11, 2016 at the Four 'N 20 Restaurant in Sherman Oaks, CA (West LA).

From left to right: Larry Niven, Dave Dressler, Alex and Jerry Pournelle at the Four 'N 20 in West LA

Over the summer, I read three acclaimed collaborations from Jerry and Larry: A Mote in God's Eye, Lucifer's Hammer, and Footfall, all available at Amazon. (Revenue from Amazon enabled Blue Origin. Go Blue Origin!)

The usual question people ask Jerry and Larry is "How do you two work together?" and their answer, spoken in unison, is "Superbly."

I asked Jerry what he thought about the Breakthrough Starshot project as it relates to A Mote in God's Eye, and science fiction moving into the realm of science fact. Breakthrough Starshot is a research and engineering project by Breakthrough Initiatives to develop a fleet of light sail spacecraft capable of making the journey to the Alpha Centauri star system. Jerry gave credit to physicist Robert L. Forward, the creator of the beam-pushed lightsail concept in 1985.

Jerry told in depth stories about the times he shared with Robert and Virginia Heinlein and where they lived. I further realized how appropriate the Heinlein Award was for Jerry as he was a very close friend of Heinlein's. The Heinlein Award features a brass cannon inscribed with one of Heinlein's favorite acronyms, "TANSTAAFL" (there ain't no such thing as a free lunch). The original title of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was to have been The Brass Cannon, but reasonably, the publisher changed it. The cannon is featured in that novel as a symbol of the Lunar Republic.

Jerry shared his personal account of Robert's relationship with the cannon:

"The story about the cannon is not one that happened to Robert Heinlein or anyone he knows so far as I know. I have heard him tell it several times over the years, and it's always about a nameless city councilman's brother-in-law who was given a sinecure job polishing the brass cannon in front of the court house. One day he came home from work, saying that he'd had this job for years and was very good at it, but he wasn't getting anywhere, so he had decided to quit. His wife was alarmed and asked what he would do. He told her he had thought about this a long time, saved up his money, and bought his own brass cannon, so now he was in business for himself."

"The story about TANSTAAFL was originally my father's and wasn't associated with the brass cannon. Dad was fond of telling about free lunch counters, and always added There Ain't No Such Thing As a Free Lunch, TANSTAAFL. A well-known San Francisco news columnist told this story, crediting Mr. Heinlein, who took the trouble to get the chap - I forget who he was, but apparently he was well known in San Francisco - to say in one of his Sunday columns that Robert had got it from me, and that my father, who was in radio in the 30's and at one time the general manager of WHBQ in Memphis as well as Chief announcer and sales manager, was actually the originator. I grew up hearing it. If dad got it from anyone before him I never knew it."

Robert eventually acquired his own signal cannon. Now Jerry has one too.

What a privilege and honor it was to spend quality time with two of the giants of hard science fiction. I only wish I had a cannon to share with Larry Niven. Thank you NSS Membership for supporting ISDC, the Awards Committee and the awards we bestow on the movers and shakers that are opening the frontiers of space.

About Dr. Jerry Pournelle

At the University of Washington in Seattle he earned four degrees: a BA in 1955, an MA in statistics and systems engineering in 1957, a PhD in psychology in 1960, and a PhD in political science in 1964. He was the author of many major and realistic science fiction novels, and also collaborated with Larry Niven to produce many classics, including The Mote in God's Eye and Footfall.

He was a leader of the Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy (1980-1997). His thinking helped to shape ideas about the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) which led, after a decades-long political struggle, to the current ballistic missile defense system. It also led, via the Delta Clipper program, which SDI spawned, to the current use of reusable rockets which land vertically. Pournelle, General Daniel Graham and Dr. Max Hunter met with Vice-President Dan Quayle on February 15, 1989, to promote the concept of a Single Stage to Orbit rocket vehicle to reduce launch costs to support SDI.

At the time, NASA representatives told Quayle that reusable rockets were impossible but Quayle listened to the three experts instead. On August 16, 1991, McDonnell-Douglas was awarded a contract to build the DC-X or Delta Clipper and it first flew and landed successfully on August 18, 1993. Jerry was present at White Sands on September 11, 1993 when the first large rocket, the DC-X vehicle, was reused. The DC-X program was later sidetracked by political maneuvering, but the concept of a reusable rocket that lands vertically was firmly established by its ten flights and landings. SpaceX and Blue Origin are now carrying on successfully in the same tradition, which promises to finally enable very ambitious human space activities.

Jerry consistently supported the vision of self-sustaining human settlements in space and on planetary surfaces, and as part of a free, spacefaring civilization, which is at the very heart of the space movement. Jerry's work as a science fiction author, focusing on science fiction with realistic physics, has contributed to a better understanding of the limitations and the abilities of human space operations. Few have made such a rich contribution to these fields. 


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Updated Thu, Oct 19, 2017 at 18:50:33
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