Forward to the Future
July 3, 2008 · Updated 7:49 PM
"As his name might suggest, South Whidbey's Robert Forward has his mind on the future. And it's quite an amazing future - one where spacecraft are hurled to Mars on shoestrings hundreds of miles long; where tourists ride lunavators to the moon's surface; and where hospitals use antimatter instead of X-rays to look inside the human body. Then, of course, there's Forward's 12-eyed slugs waging war on a distant neutron star.They're about the size of sesame seeds, Forward said of the sword-swinging gastropods he created for his book Dragon's Egg. I like aliens. I work hard on them. And they can't be played by a human in a rubber suit.At 68, Forward's far-out thinking has earned him notoriety as one of the preeminent authors of what is called hard science fiction. He is also a renowned physical-science consultant working with Boeing, the U.S. Air Force and NASA, among others, to develop new ways of traveling through space.Forward has become quite adept at jumping back and forth between the worlds of science fiction and science fact, though the boundary often becomes blurred. On the fiction side, he has written 13 published books dealing not only with warring slugs but with antimatter-fueled, water-torch-drive space ships and creatures who know they're going to die when they wake up to find their skin has turned from healthy green to grey.But Forward is also behind about 20 patents for his non-fiction science work. He contributes to Encyclopedia Britannica, is a fellow of the British Interplanetary Society, and the gravitational-radiation-detection antenna he built for his doctoral thesis is now housed at the Smithsonian museum.He and his wife Martha moved to Whidbey about six years ago after working for the Hughes Aircraft Research Laboratories in Malibu, Calif., for more than 30 years. He said they came north to escape what he called the dull weather of Southern California.Following retirement, Forward and inventor Robert Hoyt of Seattle formed Tethers Unlimited, for the purpose of promoting and developing Hoyt's design of a special multiline cord called a space tether.It looks like a fat shoestring, Forward said, holding up a short piece of similar polymer twine. Basically space tethers can be used to set up a transportation system between the earth and the moon or the earth and Mars.By rotating a very long version of the tether end-over-end in space, like the sling of David and Goliath fame, it can be used to literally throw large spacecraft to other planets without the need for heavy, bulky and expensive chemical propellants.And because we can throw it so hard, we can get it there faster, said Forward, explaining that a voyage to Mars could take as little as three months and a trip to the moon about three to four days using tethers.Though the average citizen has likely never heard of space tethers, they are already being tested. Forward said a tether two and a half miles long is currently in space and NASA has also tested a tether 12 miles long. Tethers will need to be as long as 600 miles in order to send craft to Mars, he said.The biggest problem now is that the current tethers are prone to breaking because tiny micro-meteorites moving nearly everywhere in space tend to cut them. The new design Forward and Hoyt have come up with will still hold together even if outer strands are cut. Prototypes are being made on a special knitting machine in Scotland.We're looking at it as a commercial venture. To us, the real market is tourism, said Forward. The first step is to take people who just want to ride. ... The next step is a space hotel. ... Then it's to use tethers to build a resort on the moon.It's easy to see why it's often difficult to separate fact from fiction in Forward's domain. One of his books points up this fact. In Indistinguishable From Magic, Forward mixes chapters on scientific truths such as the ongoing search for extraterrestrial radio signals with corresponding fictional stories that apply and expand on the same scientific principals.My novels are textbooks disguised as stories, he said. I never got a chance to teach and I have a strong urge to teach. This is my outlet.The title of the book comes from fellow science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote that, Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.To demonstrate his point, Forward stood up and walked over to a nearby wall where he flipped on a light switch. I can make light, he said, adding that there was a time in the not-too-distant past when such an act would have been considered magical. Forward's continuing work in space tethers, solar sails, warp drives and antimatter propulsion has pretty much that same effect today.One might assume that with all his intergalactic thinking Forward would like to take a trip into space himself, but he says that not likely to happen using current technology.I'm slightly claustrophobic so I'd probably have trouble in those tiny capsules, he said. That's one of the reasons I want to make big, comfortable spacecraft.---------------------Looking for a little hard science fiction? Here are some books by Whidbey author Robert Forward. Autographed copies can be ordered at BookBay on Main Street in Freeland.Dragon's EggRocheworldReturn to RocheworldOcean Under the IceMarooned On EdenRescued From ParadiseStarquakeIndistinguishable From MagicMirror Matter: Pioneering Antimatter PhysicsMartian RainbowTimemasterCamelot 30KSaturn Rukh--------------------More on ForwardYou can find out more about the life and work of Dr. Robert Forward by visiting his Web site at www.whidbey.com/forward. "