Thursday, July 7, 2016

Birthday: the man who invented space travel

Robert Anson Heinlein (1907-1988)
Author, futurist

Few writers have cast so broad and lasting a shadow in their field of work. With Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov- whom Heinlein recruited to work with him on defense projects in World War II- Heinlein was one of the masters of 20th century science fiction writing (he preferred “speculative fiction,” as he was never one to bend the known rules of the universe to make a plot point. His futures were all ones that could be).

After graduating from the Naval Academy, Heinlein was on active duty until drummed out for tuberculosis in 1934. In the hospital, he thought up the idea of the water bed, though he never did anything with it.

His politics were all over the universe: he supported Upton Sinclair’s 1934 California gubernatorial campaign, but by the late 1950s he was the cold-warrior author of Starship Troopers and a prominent Barry Goldwater supporter in 1964. Against that evolution his work champions strong, independent women characters, individualism, and sexual freedom. In 32 novels- Stronger in A Strange Land (1961) is one of the best- 59 short stories and 16 collections, he proved a prophetic aerospace pioneer, conceiving the cell phone 35 years before it became real, and writing a moon voyage so far ahead of that idea’s time he had trouble selling the story. He was also the author of a successful series of young adult novels, rolling out one every Christmas for years.

Heinlein was also a wordsmith, coming up with “pay it forward,” “grok”, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,”  “space marines,” and “moonbats.” In the 1950s he served on a presidential advisory commission on space exploration, and co-anchored CBS News’ coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing with Walter Cronkite.

Heinlein is memorialized by- among other things- a chair in aerospace engineering at the Naval Academy; an asteroid, and a crater on Mars.

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